Senses of Cinema, Functions of Film; What does film do?

by Laz Carter

1. Introduction

Film functions in several differing and seemingly contradictory ways. Writing critically about Film Studies as a discipline can leave one feeling fragmented, as in order to focus on a given topic in any depth one has to inevitably ignore vast swathes of data covering topics outside a delineated purview. One could write in detail about Hitchcock’s aesthetics, framing and visuality (Mulvey, 1975) and not draw any attention to sound. One could focus in on the director’s aural style (Weis, 1978) at the expense of discussing his imagery. Neither approach is empirically more robust, each has its own merits, objectives, and pitfalls. Yet taken as individual scholarly texts they provide an incomplete picture of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. By bringing the two perspectives together – along with the abundant alternative approaches that discuss this singular auteur – one can begin to construct a more complex jigsaw of the ‘Hitchcockian’ style.

This example hints at a wider issue within Film Studies of being aware of one’s own limitations in choosing one approach over another. Perhaps more so than any other discipline, Film Studies has a huge array of categories and sub-categories in which to specialise, going far beyond the visual/aural divide. Yet one has to remain aware that these topics are not isolated: a revelation in one critical field can have implications upon several others. For me, this is the joy of the discipline: one has to always be reading (and re-reading) the work of other academics discussing film through differing approaches, styles and linguistic techniques. A discussion of American film in terms of zoom lenses and intricate technical detail (Hall, 2012) might seem completely separate from a discussion of gender identity in film noir (Krutnik, 2002), though they might be debating the same film texts, generic conventions and historical zeitgeists.

Preamble aside, one hopes to have contextualised the fact that what film ‘does’ is inherently subjective. Yet one still has to pick an angle to approach the topic, and for me the most interesting aspect of film has always been the manner in which industrial factors have made an impact upon reception. What does this mean? It means that numerous decisions made on an industrial level, often before the first shot is ever filmed, can have dramatic consequences on the way that text is critically and popularly received. Such judgments include, but are not limited to, casting choices based on an actor’s perceived ‘star-image’ (Dyer, 1986:3); hiring a specific director to act as a recognisable ‘brand-name’ (Corrigan, 1991:103) due to the popular reception and critical discourse of his/her existing canon; and marketing calls exploiting the function of both ‘star-images’ and authorial ‘brand-names’.

I shall take as an example the reception of a popular ‘comic-book’ genre franchise, the films Kick-Ass (Vaughn, 2010) and Kick-Ass 2 (Wadlow, 2013). On the surface these seem to be run-of-the-mill adaptations of popular graphic novels that cash in on the ‘comic-book’ genre. Films such as these are often overlooked in academic discussions, perhaps because it is felt that many of the decisions in the filmmaking process have already been made by the authors and artists involved in creating the graphic novels. To a certain extent they are correct: many aspects relating to narrative and visual style have already been established in the original source text(s). Yet there are still several crucial decisions that must be formalised, such as who is cast to portray a controversial role, as well as how and why certain alterations are made to appeal to a cinematic audience.

2. Stardom

In 2011, I penned an article entitled ‘Hit-Girl, Kick-Ass [Matthew Vaughn, 2010] and a ‘New Cinema’ of the Young: The Potential Benefits and Limitations in Promoting a ‘New Cinema’ that Places its Emphasis on Issues of Identity and Difference’. I postulated that Chloë Grace Moretz’s portrayal of Hit-Girl in the first Kick-Ass film occupied a special position within character identification. Acting as a ‘child-adult construct’ (Klein, 2010:109) or, put more simply, a ‘tween’ (Klein, 2010:117), Moretz/Hit-Girl represents the interstitial tipping point of age-based (star-) image construction. As neither adult nor child, she is able to perform actions that neither category could acceptably achieve. Through emulating an adult she is able to execute perceivably ‘mature’ actions which include a witty repertoire of comedic quips and numerous examples of extreme and often gratuitous violence. Yet as a child she can convincingly feign innocence, as evidenced by her utilisation of the ‘schoolgirl’ code of dress­ (Fig. 1. (01:32:40 – 01:32:44)). Whilst these examples are present in the graphic novels of Kick-Ass, it is critical that the filmmalers cast Moretz to portray this role, as she has enacted ‘child-adult constructs’ in her previous roles: specifically giving relationship advice beyond her years in (500) Days of Summer (Webb, 2009) and as an eternally youthful vampire in Let Me In (Reeves, 2010).

Fig. 1: ‘schoolgirl’ costume in Kick-Ass
Fig. 1: ‘schoolgirl’ costume in Kick-Ass

In relation to the ‘child-adult construct’ nature of Hit-Girl’s character, perhaps the issue most commenters focused on in the reception of the first Kick-Ass film is her delivery of, as the director describes it, ‘one small word’ (Vaughn in Pilkington, 2010:1). Specifically, in her introduction to the titular protagonist played by Aaron Johnson, Moretz/Hit-Girl enters the scene with the words “Okay you cunts, let’s see what you can do now” (00:37:43 – 00:37:49). Critics of the film focused on this singular moment, and rushed in to describe the line as: ‘an obscene word that little girls are definitely not supposed to say’ (Itzkoff, 2010:1); ‘a four-letter slur for women’ (Dargis, 2010:1); exhibiting ‘poor family values’ (Higgins, 2010:1); and ‘morally reprehensible’ (Ebert, 2010:1). Without getting distracted by issues of ‘morality’, my argument is that the negative publicity surrounding this issue aided the film’s release because it boosted public awareness: in this case, the old adage rings true that ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’. This issue is inextricably linked to Moretz’s ‘star-image’ as without her input the line may not have been included in the film. Originally the line was not included in the script; yet during the shooting process,the young star’s mother, Teri Moretz, asked ”Are we making a mistake not doing what it says in the comic?’ (Salisbury, 2010:1). Thus if we were to perform a ‘commutation test’ (Thompson, 2000:183) – which is to say, imagine a version of Kick-Ass in which we re-cast the role of Hit-Girl as performed by a different actress – we would not only lose the ‘child-adult construct’ connotations based on Moretz’s previous films, but also the aforementioned obscenity which helped push the film into new markets. In my opinion, the application of Moretz’s ‘star-image’ to the Kick-Ass franchise has impacted not only on extratextual readings across her body of films but has also directly impacted on the film text itself and, as a result, its popular and critical reception.

3. Authorship

In addition to casting choices, directorial decisions significantly modify the impact or tone of the original source material. In the graphic novel series ‘Kick-Ass 2’, which was released following the success of the first Kick-Ass movie, there is a rape scene in which the group of ‘supervillians’ viciously abuse the love interest of the protagonist. In the film adaptation of this scene, several changes have taken place. Not only are the characters in question different from those present in the graphic novel – the superhero ‘Night Bitch’ (Lindy Booth) replacing the protagonist’s central romantic interest Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) – but the primary ‘supervillain’ (Chris D’Amico, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is rendered impotent at the critical moment, and the scene becomes a comical vignette of masculine failure. Although ‘Night Bitch’ is still physically attacked in order to incentivise the protagonist, she is not sexually assaulted. This is crucial to the rhythm of the narrative, as the darkest trough of the narrative in the graphic novel is replaced in the film by a moment of mild peril and light comedic relief. In defence of this alteration, Jeff Wadlow (author and director of the sequel) claimed that the reason for making this amendment was due to the nature of the medium. Wadlow is quoted as saying ‘I felt as a filmmaker – because I’m dealing with real people, not drawings of people – the audience didn’t need to be taken that far to experience the same kind of feeling’ (in Outlaw, 2013b:1). Evidently the very nature of the filmic medium requires alterations from the source text, and the director’s own agency has a clear impact upon which aspects of the narrative require modifications.

One can also note the similarities between the ‘brand-names’ of Matthew Vaughn, director of Kick-Ass, and Jeff Wadlow, director of Kick-Ass 2. Both directors have overseen successful productions in the past, but their canons reflect different ‘specialisations’ which each director brings to the franchise. Vaughn’s directorial debut Layercake (Vaughn, 2004) brings connotations of excessive violence and criminal gangs – tropes which are extremely prominent in the first instalment of the Kick-Ass franchise through the portrayal of the film’s villain Frank D’Amico (played by Mark Strong). On the other hand, Wadlow has made his name with films such as Cry_Wolf (Wadlow, 2005) and Never Back Down (Wadlow, 2008), which centre upon the high-school drama and romantic comedy genres. These themes are much more prevalent in the sequel, particularly in relation to the sub-plot involving Moretz/Hit-Girl. As we can see, each director’s persona seems specifically tailored to the narrative content which they oversaw. Looking beyond the Kick-Ass franchise, both directors have been connected to recent instalments of the X-Men franchise: Vaughn directed X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011) and Wadlow has been linked (Outlaw, 2013a:1) to writing and directing the as yet unreleased X-Force (Wadlow, TBA). Taking the long view, one can argue that each ‘author’ has been guided through their careers via the Kick-Ass franchise, each picking up slightly different canonical traits along the way, in order to bring differing connotations to instalments of not just the Kick-Ass franchise but also the popular X-Men canon. This highlights the extent to which directors are deployed as ‘brand-names’ in order to indicate to potential audiences thematic threads which will be present in the films they direct. By utilising industry professionals not only for the work with which they are responsible, but also as promotional ‘brand-names’ which shape audience expectations, these directors are exploited as both authors and ‘author functions’ (Foucault, 1984:107).

4. Conclusion

I have argued that both an actor’s ‘star-image’ as well as a director’s ‘brand-name’ have direct implications for a film’s reception, whether intentional or otherwise. Through this brief examination of Moretz, Vaughn, and Wadlow, I have illustrated the importance of interrogating the industrial decisions we, as audience members, often take for granted. For me, analysing the reasons behind such judgments has always been the most stimulating topic within Film Studies. Yet one cannot examine this issue in isolation. It would be impossible to make the claims I have here without at least a passing reference to such (sub-) fields as textual analysis or theoretical issues relating to authorship, stardom, identity formation and various other areas. It is my view that whichever angle one takes in analysing film, any approach must be placed within the wider context of Film Studies scholarship.


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