Rabbit-Trailing

I’m elbow-deep into Film Studies right now. Reading a book called Film Studies: The Basics, by Amy Villarejo, and learning about all kinds of interesting stuff – like mise-en-scène, and cinematography, and the history of film, and so on. And boy oh boy, does this subject ever lend itself to rabbit-trailing.

Yesterday, I ended up watching bits of The Jazz Singer on Youtube – you know, the first movie that ever had sound with it. It wasn’t really a talkie yet, as from what I gather nobody does any talking – dialogue is still done with text screens interspersed with the film, just like a silent movie. But they do do some singing. Anyway, it wasn’t what I had expected at all – I was thinking it’d be some story of a flapper girl singing in bars, but instead it’s a flapper boy singing in bars, I guess. Well, actually, it’s the story of a Jewish boy whose father wants him to become cantor in the synagogue, but he wants to sing popular music (“jazz”) instead and gets kicked out of home for it. So, Jewish family drama, with lots of singing. And I got onto that rabbit trail when I was in the chapter about the history of film.

And in the part about mise-en-scène I got onto watching a little bit of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is a German horror flick from 1920. Apparently it’s a classic for its lighting effects (I found that by looking up mise-en-scène on Wikipedia).

And then, for some reason which I can’t remember (probably still to do with History of Film), I was googling Jimmy Stewart, and found this 1942 US Air Force recruitment film called Winning Your Wings, hosted by Lieutenant James Stewart (he’d already been serving for a year). One funny bit is where he’s telling potential recruits that being in the Air Force is a guaranteed girl magnet – there’s a scene where a hot blonde chick ditches her non-flying boyfriend on the dance floor just because a guy with a pair of silver wings on his uniform just walked in.

Anyway, yes, major rabbit trails there. But they’re helping me put the movies I’m studying into context. The Wizard of Oz was filmed hardly more than ten years after The Jazz Singer that’s a crazy-fast jump in technology, from silent black-and-white movies to this full-colour massive musical extravaganza in just ten years. To my mind, the special effects in the Harry Potter and Narnia movies are astounding, when you consider that just thirty years ago they made movie spaceships with a toy on a string dangled in front of a set. It’s easy to feel kind of condescending towards films like Oz with their not-very-special special effects – but put it in context, and Oz is mind-blowing.

What is the implication of all that on the movies I’m studying? A lot of the twenty-first-century fantasy films are a razzle-dazzle of special effects – is this desire to show off technological prowess influencing how they’re telling the story? Was a certain amount of that desire already present in the Wizard of Oz? What does it do to the STORY?

Well, I’ll figure that out later. Right now I have to get back to Villarejo, I’m about to find out all about Bollywood.

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