Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Use of Focalization in Taken

Director Pierre Morel’s Taken is an action movie that fills its audience with a feeling of suspense and thrill different from one’s usual story of a savior or hero. Morel’s story takes a father, Bryan, and puts him in one of the most heartbreaking situations of any father’s life: the kidnapping of his only daughter, Kim. Although Bryan is a former CIA agent still well skilled in his profession throughout the movie, his role as a father leads him to make decisions in hostile situations during the rescue not customary to the usual James Bond-style rescue story. These decisions throughout the movie keep the viewer in suspense as they attempt to predict the father’s next move in potentially climactic moments of the rescue. In Taken, the character conflict between father and agent is highlighted through the use of focalization, placing Bryan in situations where both he and the viewer have a few moments to survey the setting and decide on an action to take.
One situation Bryan finds himself in throughout the movie is his conversation with the men who run the sex trafficking business inside their apartment. He arrives in their kitchen claiming he is Jean-Claude; an officer he has currently found seems to be dealing under the table with these criminals.

Time Stamp:58:28

Continuing this false identity quite smoothly, Bryan gets information about locations of the trafficking sites as well as names of the men leading these businesses. His ability to conceal his own identity while still getting to the details he needs to know to find his daughter highlight his abilities as a former CIA agent and the viewer as well as Bryan find themselves relatively comfortable with the situation at hand. But the hostility of the scene soon rises when one of the men says “good luck” in the same tone as the kidnapper on the phone at the beginning of the movie. At this point of the scene, there are a few seconds where the viewer sees the situation at hand through Bryan’s eyes as he briefly flashes back to the past scene that ties the phrase together. The viewer then does not know what the father will do next: walk away and not reveal his identity in front of the group of armed men, or get revenge on the man who robbed him of his daughter despite the risky circumstances. This veil of uncertainty leaves the decision in the air for even longer as the scene seems to stop for a moment to increase the suspense before Bryan reveals his identity and takes down all the men single-handedly. While this situation for a normal professional agent would probably end with him or her keeping up their fake identity, the father side of the main character took precedence as he made a decision that could have easily ended in his own death.
Another setting within the movie in which Bryan and the viewer find themselves at a point of suspense is in Jean-Claude’s dining room. In this scene, Bryan sits down for dinner with Jean-Claude’s wife and Jean-Claude, who returns from work surprised to see him in his house. As they begin to speak casually at the table, Bryan begins to insert comments with symbolic meanings in the traditional way movies do when there is a third party oblivious to the situation at hand. This third party, being Jean-Claude’s wife, listens on and eventually begins to feel the tensions brewing between the two men. At this point, a CIA agent or professional would most likely try to keep the wife out of the issue by either asking her to leave the room or moving their conversation elsewhere. Instead, the mind of an impatient father with little time decides to bring the matters of Jean-Claude’s secret criminal affairs out into the open in front of his wife. At this point Jean-Claude pulls out a gun that has already been unloaded, and the tension again mounts as the viewer begins to predict Bryan’s next move.

Time Stamp: 1:07:50

He has already put his skills to use by cleverly unloading his enemy’s gun, but now the wrath of a still-daughterless father again influences an important decision. Bryan pulls out his own gun and shoots the wife, an outcome the viewer would have never expected. This spontaneous and untraditional action by a CIA agent serves to keep the viewer loyal to each moment of suspense throughout the movie by showing that no action by this CIA agent will be held to special agent stereotypes; Bryan’s actions must be not just his former profession but his current role as a father as well.



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An intertext for “In a Better World”

The passage that Christian reads in the funeral for his mother in the beginning of the film is from the story of “The Nightingale” in Hans Christian Andersen’s book of fairy tales. It would make an interesting exercise and and interesting blog post to write on this. Here’s a link to the story. The story is originally in Danish (fittingly). But, since the funeral is set in England, the film uses an English translation by Jean Hersholt, which is the version I linked to.

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Power Dynamics and Focalization in In a Better World

In In a Better World, the director places the viewer into the characters’ positions through his use of focalization. Most notably, the viewer finds himself watching events take place through the eyes of Christian and Elias. Their viewpoints atop the silo represent their struggle for power—as the viewer looks down at the ground, watching Christian and Elias’s potential victims scurry around unknowingly like ants, he relates himself to these boys as they formulate their plans. On the silo they are free; they can escape reality, evading the limitations of authority while somehow maintaining control and power over the peoples’ lives below them.

Timestamp 00:25:14

These unaware, powerless people contrast the people who attempt to control and dominate Elias and Christian when not on the silo. Once level with the rest of society, these boys see their power diminish. They face relentless victimization from the school bully while witnessing the school system simply ignore and neglect to resolve it. Even their lives at home entail disorder, as Christian deals with the thought that his father supported his mother’s death and Elias struggles to find a hero in his unfaithful and often unavailable father. To add to their turbulent relations with their fathers, their respective parents’ separation from each other further worries the boys. In a world in which evil and corrupt authority figures create turmoil, the boys retreat to the “better world” on the silo. Here they begin to seek stability that, according to them, can be effectively brought about by amassing power.

Behind their parents’ backs, they construct plans to gain power over people who have wronged them and thus have power over them. Christian first attempts to gain power over the school bully by beating him with a bicycle pump and holding a knife to his throat. Christian and his power-hungry tendencies serve as a foil to Elias and his submissive nature, and Christian thinks Elias is weak for not initially wanting to blow up a van. Christian sees this weakness in Elias translate to Elias’s father, Anton, who gets slapped by another man in front of the boys. While Anton preaches to his children that the man’s assaults do not hurt and that the other man lost, Christian claims that he “does not [think] he lost,” signifying Christian’s stance that Anton is the weaker man.

Christian detests this weakness and plans to gain revenge and power by blowing up the man’s van. The viewer then wonders who actually has more power; Anton or the boys? Anton, who holds that “violence only creates more violence,” assumes a Jesus-like role in the movie and combats Christian’s perception of “power.” Perhaps he is not nearly as weak as Christian thinks. Like Jesus, Anton turns his cheek when hit rather than fights back. Also like Jesus, Anton saves numerous lives in S Africa and ultimately saves Christian’s. The director’s choice to highlight Anton’s cross tattoo on his side while he floats on his back in the lake (like Jesus, suspended on the water) furthers this similarity between him and Jesus.

At the end of the story, the movie viewer sees through Christian’s eyes again as he attempts to gain power over his own life in contemplating suicide from the top of the silo. While Christian’s clueless father tries to determine his whereabouts, Anton recognizes the silo made of legos and immediately goes to save Christian. By utilizing focalization here, the director heightens suspense and draws sympathy for Christian as the viewer looks far below at the distant ground.

Timestamp 1:04:19

In this scene we see Christian’s helplessness and Anton’s actual possession of the power the boys strive for. Finally, as Elias returns to physical health, his parents’ relationship too regains health and stability.

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Loyalty in Taken and In a Better World

While family seems to be the focus of this week’s films, I’ve found loyalty to be the underlying motivation for many characters’ actions. Merriam-Webster lists synonyms for loyalty, such as dedication, faithfulness, and allegiance. Throughout the class, I’ve found that loyalty and revenge go hand in hand. But does that make one’s actions justifiable?

Bryan Mills, the father and ex-CIA operative in Taken, fights to get his daughter back from a nasty albanian prostitution ring that kidnapped her in Europe. Over the course of the film, Bryan kills 26 people, including the brutal torture of the man who first took his daughter Kim. When face to face with one of the men directly involved in Kim’s final sale (a deal of $500,000), Bryan  points a gun in his face; the man says, “Please understand, it was all business.” Bryan replies, “It was all personal to me.” He proceeds to unload the contents of his gun into the man pleading for mercy. So, not a single audience member can deny Bryan Mills’ loyalty to his daughter. His life was in danger at many points, and he was willing to do anything for her–true allegiance. Furthermore, no one can deny that what the Albanians did to his daughter was horrific. Does the fact that he was displaying loyalty justify his actions? Or was their a certain amount of revenge being taken that tips the scales of justice a little too far in Bryan’s direction?

Anton, from In a Better World, is a doctor who does medical missions in Africa. He loves and supports his sons, although he has trouble in his marriage. While away in Africa, he treats woman after pregnant woman that have been cut open to reveal their now-dead babies. One day the leader of the men who have been performing these atrocities drives into the camp, insisting that Anton fix his deeply infected leg. Anton reluctantly agrees to treat the man, on the condition that he keeps his armed minions far away from the refugee camp. The boss complies, but becomes increasingly patient. After Anton’s surgery on a young girl fails, he is devastated–which is when the boss storms in, making horrific comments about the newly dead girl. He knocks the man over and lets the people of the refugee camp, who hate this man more than anything, seek revenge for the deaths and desecrations of their daughters. Anton jeopardized his loyalty to all those he treated in the camp by helping this evil man. He, however, regained it when he let them kill the man who had done so many horrible things. Those who killed him also sought revenge for their daughters. Was Anton right in treating him in the first place? Was he right to give him up to the refugees?

Loyalty and revenge are closely tied, but can loyalty be considered justification for horrible deeds? Can vengeance be the sole motive for any revenge seeker?


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Writing assignment 2

Your second paper is a rather different beast than your first.

TOPIC: This paper is more of a philosophical/critical-thinking analysis of a (or two) film(s). The basic question you will be seeking to answer is this: what is revenge?

PROCEDURE: Take 2 different views on revenge as expressed in one film or in two different films and explicate their similarities and differences. This paper is, then, part of the genre a “compare and contrast” papers–but it needs to focus narrowly on revenge. As on your first paper, I am looking for careful attention to detail and a strong argument. Being able to do good writing about film means knowing how to use telling details that you have thought deeply about. Be careful. Write slowly. Think hard about the films. In the end, your paper should seem to make the films speak more clearly and subtly.

DETAILS OF TOPIC: There are 2 things you need to think about while developing your paper.

  1. How do you find a “view” on revenge? The easiest way is to take a character (or group) as representative of a view, which they articulate in their words and demonstrate in their actions. Then find a character that represents an alternative view. Another, more difficult (and more interesting?) of this is to look for points of view expressed through cinematographical technique. In this case, a director, screenwriter, or others might be said to be expressing a view on revenge. Or it might be better just to say that “a film” does (if you think a film has one message it is trying to get across).  You might be able to find more than one view in a single film, or you could place one film against another. A word of caution here. Do not need to assume that a film or a character has a coherent and logically consistent view on revenge. In fact, you might find that a single character can express both the views on revenge you are trying to compare. After all, well-written characters often develop over the course of a story, changing their minds and ethics.
  2. What constitutes a “view” of revenge? You should think broadly about how you might define revenge. Here’s some questions you can consider. This list is neither exhaustive nor should you feel you need to touch on all of these. These questions are only suggestions:
    • How is revenge structured? In other words, what constitutes vengeance? What individual acts must it contain (and must not contain)?
    • Is there any one single thing that makes revenge revenge?
    • What is distinctive about revenge?
    • What makes something revenge-killing and not murder?
    • Is revenge just? Always, never, or sometimes?
    • What is the goal of revenge?
    • Why does someone take revenge?
    • What makes someone take revenge?
    • What problems does it solve? What does it leave unsolved?
    • What problems does it cause?
    • How does revenge function in a community? Does it bring it together or tear it apart?
    • Is revenge realistic?
    • What emotions go into it?
    • Is there anything peculiar to revenge in film, as opposed to life?
    • How do different revenge stories relate to one another?

BASIC REQUIREMENTS: Similar in length to your last paper (1200-1500 words, double-spaced). You do not have to incorporate image in this one, but can if it is useful for your argument. If you do, cite them the same way, with time-stamps.

GRADING: See writing assignment 1 post (point 4)


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Metatheater in Inglourious Basterds

Metatheater is a term coined by Lionel Abel, and it refers to an aspect of a movie, play, or other literary medium in which the medium acts to break the illusion. A work may achieve this “broken illusion” by drawing attention to the fact that the actors are playing the role of a character, or by making the audience aware of themselves as an audience, or reminding the audience that the plot of the work is indeed fictional, ultimately emphasizing to the audience that what they are experiencing is not reality.

Aspects of Metatheater are very prominent in the film Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino in 2009. The subtitles themselves force the reader to read some of the dialogue, as opposed to fully immersing himself or herself into the plot of the film. If an audience member happens to speak each of English, French, German, and Italian, he or she might not need to read the subtitles to understand the action of the movie, but the presence of the subtitles themselves distract the viewer from becoming completely absorbed in the illusion typically created by a movie. The English subtitles, when translated from French dialogue, occasionally appear as “oui” or “merci” instead of “yes” or “thank you”, but then in other parts of the film, the correct English subtitles are displayed. This assumes that an English-speaking audience member would know enough of the French language to still understand the dialogue, even though it appears in a foreign language. Also, the presence of dates and settings at the beginning of a scene (“1941 – Nazi Occupied Germany”) are very informative to a typical American audience member, as it functions to help the viewer to better understand the action of the movie, but it also serves to distance the viewer from the illusion of reality created by the movie.

Another interesting metatheatrical element used throughout the film is the segmenting of the action into chapters. Each chapter is introduced at the beginning of the scene, along with a title for the scene that explains a little about the action to come in the following scene. This, again, enhances the audience member’s understanding of the plot, but the segmenting aspect of metatheater still functions to prevent the audience from becoming too absorbed by the illusion on screen. It becomes harder to mistake the film for reality because of this segmentation, because real life is not separated into labeled sections of chapters.

Chapter Separation

Numerous different fonts appear in the opening credits for this movie. The title of the film, Inglourious Basterds, also appears in its own separate and distinct font and color. This differentiation originally seems confusing and unimportant, but each group of names appearing in a certain font seems to denote the importance and prevalence of the character that the actor is playing. Throughout the entire film, Tarantino has an interesting way of introducing various characters to the audience. He does this through the use of circles, arrows, and character name labels digitally added into the scene. This method allows director Tarantino to introduce a character or draw attention to something in particular within a shot without using dialogue between characters or narration to explain the significance of a new character. These arrows, circles and labels are reminiscent of a sports commentator’s explanation to a television audience of a particular play or highlight. While this employment of digital arrows and labels is informative and efficient time wise, it also serves to further remove the audience from the fictional illusion of the plot.

Since the settings and a few of the events in Inglourious Baserds are historically accurate, an audience member might succumb to the plausibility of the plot of this movie, believing it to be true. However, some of the elements of metatheater highlight for the audience that this is a fictional work, and that the events portrayed on screen are not necessarily historically accurate representations of the events during World War II.


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The Role of Fractured Parents

Parents obviously play a major part in a child’s life from raising them to supporting them to giving them guidance; however, Taken and In a Better World focus on somewhat broken sets of parents and convey a message about their effect on the child. Both of these films demonstrate a correlation between the main conflict of the plot and the animosity or struggles between the two parents.

In Taken, Kim’s parents had been divorced for many years due to Bryan’s job as a “preventer” for the US government that constantly kept him away from home and in dangerous situations. Kim’s mother, Lenore, clearly blames him for the divorce and resents him for his demanding job saying:

“You sacrificed our marriage to the service of the country, you’ve made a mess of your life in the service of your country; can’t you sacrifice a little one time for your own daughter?”

Because she was the primary caretaker most of Kim’s life, Lenore felt like she had the better judgment over their daughter’s actions and decisions. His absence gave her the feeling of authority in the parenting department that he hated but yet couldn’t deny when she called him out for it:

“You won’t even know I’m there. I’m very good at being invisible.” -Bryan

“As you so amply demonstrated for the rest of her life.” -Lenore

It seems that the best Bryan could manage was his promise to always be there for her birthday, which he kept true to and had a photo album solely of birthday pictures to prove it. Although Bryan had the worldly knowledge and expertise, Lenore still hid Kim’s real motives for going to France and misled him into letting her go on a seemingly innocent international trip, which turned into a real catastrophe.

Both of the families that were featured in the Danish film In a Better World had fractured parents that contributed to the main issues with their sons. Christian’s mother died from cancer, but he struggled to accept her death and held a lot of angst towards his father blaming him for the mother’s death. This anger and frustration towards a man who was rarely home because of business in London translated into displaced hostility and aggression that created much of the conflict in the film. Elias, on the other hand, adored his father; however, Anton is absent a lot due to his job as a doctor in Africa. Like Bryan from Taken, his job, though honorable, kept him away from his family and created some dissonance. Elias’s parents were also separated (like Kim’s) except due to an affair that Anton had and broke his wife’s trust. When Elias is struggling with Christian’s idea of building a bomb, he tries to tell his father over a video chat, but the bad connection keeps Anton from hearing and somewhat confirms Elias’s choice to help and go through with bombing the van.

Despite all of the familial troubles in these two films leading up to the climax, the end of the movie brings about promising conclusions for all three sets of parents. When Kim and Bryan returned from France, Lenore and her new husband were much friendlier towards Bryan as she gave him a long hug thanking him and Stuart offered him a ride home. These acts may not seem like much, but compared to their interactions in the beginning of the movie, it was a big improvement. The concluding minutes of In a Better World brought about Christian’s forgiveness and improved relationship with his dad as well as a potential renewal of Elias’s parents’ marriage. Although these particular films do not feature conflicts that were direct results of the struggling parents, they seem to exhibit the message of happy parents lead happy families which are always a happy


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