In the seminar, we began by presenting our foreign film (our task for Reading Week): mine was the Spanish historical drama La Lengua De Las Mariposas (Butterfly's Tongue), which told the story of a little boy called Moncho, who grew up against the backdrop of 1930s Spain, a country soon to plunge into civil war, and who makes friends with his teacher, the wise old Don Gregorio, and gains a lot of confidence. The film's detailed and accurate production values, portraying the village life of common Spaniards, and the tussle between politics and church, and the humble settings, coupled with incredible performances from the two leads and effective, poignant direction that manages to be very engaging and emotional without ever becoming saccharine, make this a quality picture, and one of best for a newcomer to Spanish cinema who might not be ready for the more daring and darkly comical films like those by directors like Almodovar (The Skin I Live In, All About My Mother).
After, we discussed the idea of 'National Identity' and what that means: the class brought up concepts such as traditions (holidays, customs, rituals), morals/ethics of that particular nation (like America has and supports the death penalty, whereas somewhere like Britain does not) the country's iconography and its history (the Eifel Tower and the French Revolution, with images like the guillotine and tri-colour flaf, you would instantly associate with France, or the Vatican & Leaning Tower with Italy).
Later, we were screened the 2004 Johnathan Glazer film, Birth, which dealt with a woman whose husband has seemingly been reborn as a ten year old boy, and trying to come to terms with that, despite the doubts of friends and family. Frankly, I did not like this film, at all. The performances, especially from Kidman and the child actor, were flat, tepid and monotone for most of the film, the child in particular being a little too creepy and blank for us to sympathise with him and his 'plight', the film makes no effort to explore, in either metaphysical or scientific terms, how Kidman's husband could return aside from a brief scene with a psychologist (compared to say, Fearless, which looked at the issue of surviving a plane crash and its effects on survivors both scientifically and from a mystical/religious perspective), and the direction was fairly standard, very often opting for a desaturated 'grey' look, sometimes coming across as poor lighting or indifferent cinematography at times. Frankly, Glazer, who also did Sexy Beast, has and can do a lot better, and this was a missed opportunity.
Then in the lecture, we looked at the concept of 'Stardom', reflecting back on the idea that an auteur can also been an actor (they can play very distinctive roles, like John Wayne playing cowboys or Edward G Robinson playing gangsters). In the case of Birth, the star was Nicole Kidman, an Australian actress and former wife of Tom Cruise, another major name in films, who first came to prominence through films like Dead Calm, Batman Forever and her major breakout role, To Die For (1995) playing a ditzy weather forecaster who climbs up the television ladder.
Through this, we looked at the origins of 'star' and some of its archetypes: Star was first coined by early movie mogul Carl Lemmele Sr in 1910 as a means of creating a following/regular audience for film, which was then a new and frowned upon medium. The first 'star' was Florence Lawrence aka The Biograph, who staged a mock death and then later was seemingly resurrected, now with her real name. However, the first really big star was silent film icon and comic Charlie Chaplin, who created an well known persona in the form of 'The Tramp' that audience then and now instantly recognise. The archetypes mentioned before that began at this time include the 'Manly Man' (dashing, heroic actors like Douglas Fairbanks Sr), the 'Great Lover' (men women loved and worshiped, like Rudolph Valentino), the 'Sex Symbol' (women who would inspire the 'Gothic' trend, frequently with images of death like skulls and crypts, like Thena Barra) and the 'Girl Next Door' (young, blond, wholesome women, such as Mary Pickford, who was married to Fairbanks), and then with the advent of sound came another two: the Everyman/woman (more down to earth and real, like Gary Cooper and James Stewart) and the Lovable Villain (someone audiences love to hate, like Humphrey Bogart in his early roles).
Our assignment this week was to find and talk about a star of our own choosing. To conclude, today was really engrossing as both subjects offered a huge amount of room for discussion: in the former, it was interesting to see the variety of countries and cultures that people brought in with their films and how they differed, as well as seeing how different people perceive the concept of 'national identity', and in the latter, despite the awful film, it was interesting to see how much history and depth there is to the question of what is a 'star', something that in this age of media we just write off as 'just someone famous' when in fact, it is so much more.