West Side Story and the suspension of disbelief

During the lesson on Musical Genre Films, we learned how musicals were a genre where the suspension of disbelief is required from the audiences. This means that as one watches a musical, one needs to throw aside what they believed about the world in order to immerse themselves in the diegetic world of the musical film. Although suspension of disbelief is in fact needed to watch any film, since movie plots are fictional and some even contain out-of-the-world themes and topics, in my opinion, musicals are one of the genres where this suspension is crucial in order for one to enjoy the film, as it is impossible to witness people breaking out into songs and choreographed dance numbers out of nowhere on the streets.

In this response, I will be looking at West Side Story and explaining how this musical film was the first to challenge the suspension of disbelief required in viewing musical films previously.

West Side Story distinguished itself from previous musical films by involving location shooting, with a Prologue opened in New York City and set in the urban streets (Shearer, 2015). Bringing the filming from a studio out into a real natural location, West Side Story introduces realism into the musical film by breaking the tradition of studio filmmaking audiences were used to seeing, such as painted backdrops, highly controlled studio lighting or synthetic looking props. As a result, audiences’ suspense of disbelief is reduced, as the background serves as a reminder of reality, in fact, it is one that is highly recognizable by Americans.

In the prologue where the jets first meet the sharks, as seen during lecture, audiences are expected to draw out visual and aesthetic patterns in the environment that is both an every day setting and an aesthetic space (Shearer,2015), where there is a convergence of aesthetics and realism, such as how the gangs shift from walking to dancing. The non-dance moves, randomness and spontaneity seen in the film highlight the ‘everyday life of the street’ (Berman, 1983). Some scholars even argued that the film deliberately fosters discrepancy between the highly stylized dance moves (a mix of ballet and non-choreography dance) and a naturalistic setting, allowing for a mix of realism and Hollywood studio production style (Shearer, 2015). Moreover, the dance sequence in the prologue mixes characters’ natural movements with choreography, there were many instances characters moved like how any man of the street would, creating occasional distinction from the imagined world. With such distinction, it makes it clear to the audience to distinguish between what is realistic and what is not while watching the film, making them aware that there are natural elements in the film.

Finally, West Side Story explores real life themes and issues such as immigration and racism, and ends with an unconventional sad ending instead of a happy ending that audiences were used to watching in previous musical films. Just as how these social issues remain unsolved and are still negatively affecting lives today, West Side Story shows a realistic portrayal of these social realities. Hence, audiences cannot help it but are made aware of real social depictions instead of entirely suspending disbelief like what they have been used to doing in watching previous musical films.




Readings used:

SHEARER, M. (2015). A new way of living: West Side Story, street dance and theNewYork musical. Screen, 56(4), 450-470.

BERMAN, M. (1983). All that is solid melts into air: The experience of modernity. New York, NY: Verso, 313-319.

Here’s Why I Don’t Quite Agree With The Auteur Theory

In class, we learned about the Auteur Theory, specifically about two of the known auteurs around – Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonoini. Akira Kurosawa, another well-known Auteur, was also mentioned during the group presentation. No doubt, films by these directors have distinct qualities that many attribute to the directors’ competence and mastery of techniques. We have witnessed in class, some of the films by these directors like Persona (by Bertman), L’Avventura (by Antonoini) and the Seven Samurai (by Kurosawa). It is evident that these films have distinguishable styles from other films. Moreover, the Auteurism of these directors has also allowed for their repertoire of films to bear the same semblance and style. Simply put, films by these directors characterises the heart and soul of these directors.

However, here’s why I don’t quite agree with Auteurism.

Auteur theory functions on an assumption that a film has one person controlling and contributing to it, and that is the director. I have to acknowledge that to an extent, it is true, because the director gets to make the final decisions on and off set during production, thereby getting accredited for the film style.

Standing on the side of critics, I would suggest another point of view hopefully film students do consider before jumping on the bandwagon of the Auteur Theory. The process of filmmaking is a complex and dynamic one. It is impossible for a director to do every single task required in filmmaking. Hence, there is contribution and collaboration with other professionals happening in the process. These professionals take on other artistic tasks and then submit it to the director for final approval. To put it in an analogy, it seems to me that the director is like a curator in a museum, whereas the production crewmembers are the artists submitting their artworks to be selected for the exhibition.

So why is the director getting the credit for other people’s work as well?

Bergman, Antonoini and Kurosawa all had worked closely with certain actors who helped them in crafting the style in their films.

Bergman worked with what he called his “Repertory Company” of Swedish actors whom he uses frequently in his films. This includes Bibi and Harriet Anderaaon, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman, who appeared in 9 of his films.


(Liv Ullman)

For Antonioni, Monica Vitti appeared in 5 of his known films, namely Red Desert, L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse and Mystery of Oberwald.


(Monica Vitti)

Kurosawa’s films mostly starred Takashi Shimura, who appeared in 21 out of his 30 films and Toshiro Mifune, who appeared in 16.


(Toshiro Mifune)

These actors used across the auteurs’ repertoire do shape the consistency of the personal factor across the auteur films, as these stars, in their physical characteristics, distinct qualities and personalities, help paint the artistic styles of the films beyond the control of the director. Ullman, Vitti and Mifune bring about certain artistic elements into the film they inhabit, with their appearance and distinctive physical features “colouring” the mise-en-scenes.

Furthermore, these auteurs also worked closely with great cinematographers who brought to the table their own artistic creativity and skills. Bergman worked closely with Sven Nykvist, a cinematographer known for his naturalistic and simple style, and helped steer Bergman’s film style away from a Theatrical look, towards the later half of Bergman’s career. For example, in Persona, Sven was the one who had created the close up shots of faces on camera (which we saw in class).

persona-2 persona1

Antonioni worked closely with Alfio Contini, a noted and prolific cinematographer, on four of his known films. Contini, being an acclaimed cinematographer, would bring his set of artistic practice and skills into Antonioni’s films, such as Zabriskie Point, which showcased brilliant scenic cinematography.



Likewise, Kurosawa had a team of “Kurosawa-gumi” made up of the same crewmembers, which he used across his films. Notably, Yoshiro Muraki and Takashi Matsuyama worked closely with Kurosawa in giving art and cinematographic direction to his films.

In the readings, it mentioned Bazin had postulated that auteurism is “choosing in the artistic creation the personal factor as a criterion of reference, and then postulating its permanence and even its progress from one work to the next”. However, what I find lacking in that statement is the acknowledgement of other film professionals who facilitated or even significantly contributed to the permanence and progression of the auteur’s personal factor across his repertoire of films. Even the stars used consistently across their films helped maintain the permanence of their style. Hence, the Auteur Theory lacks in accounting for other “artists” who had actually significantly contributed to the films, who just did not have the title as the director.

German Expressionism in Edward Scissorshand

Hi Folks! Thought it would be interesting to see how German Expressionism manifested itself in a blockbuster film in recent decades, after learning about its historical popularity and reception.

Edward Scissorshand (1920) was briefly mentioned in class, so I would be giving an analysis of its visual and thematic style here! I would also briefly give a comparison with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to see how Tim Burton drew on the influence of Robert Wiene and his significance in doing so.

Visual Style:

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.58.21 PMScreen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.59.00 PM

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In Edward Scissorshand, the whole town in which the plot is set in is bright pastel perfect, with geometrically symmetrical lanes and big shapes, almost cartoon-like. Just as the readings have pointed out, expressionistic films uses “large shapes of bright colours”, Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 11.06.36 PM“juxtaposition of similar shapes”. In the town, Edward’s house stands in contrast with the others, as his castle has a “dark cartoonlike outline” as described in the readings, with crooked tree lines forming an uncomfortable silhouette.


Being set on top of a hill in the town, Edward’s castle is likened to a scene

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.57.50 PMin The Cabinet of Dr. The_Cabinet_of_Dr_Caligari_HolstenwallCaligari, which also portrays an unusually uncomfortable looking town, with a mountain like view. This perhaps goes to show the fantastical and imaginative nature of German Expressionism.



The readings suggested that films inspired by German expressionism would have sets acting in conjunction with the actors, almost like “blending in with the actor’s movement”. In Edward Scissorshand, the town folks’ costumes blended in with their houses, being in the same pastel colours and in minimalized designs, just as their houses are.

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In this particular scene, the woman’s Christmas costume matches the decoration of her house.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 11.06.20 PMNot only are the costumes allowing the actors to blend into their set, the actor’s position in the movie are at times symmetrical to their background. In this scene below, this lady’s position on the couch mimics the artifact hung on her wall, as if the set is a “living component of the action” (mentioned in readings).

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The interior of Edward’s castle is dark and gloomy, with a few streaks of light streaming into his habited spaces, just as it is depicted in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligula.

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The darkness and low-key lighting of the films creates shadows that highlight the darker thematic undertones of isolation and madness (which I will cover later in the post!). As read in the readings, the shadows can further “create additional distortion”. Edward’s gothic costumes, consisting of a black leather suit, blends with the interior of his castle, associating them as one, further emphasizing his character as mysterious and hidden away from the town folks.

Edward’s scissors as hands is also a blend of actor and props, such that the scissors are mounted onto the actor’s real hands and work in tune with his movement in the film. This shows how the expressivity in German Expressionism “extends into every aspect of the mise en scene”.

Fun fact: Don’t you think Edward looks like Cesare from Dr. Caligari?

cesare-scissorhandsBoth of them have grotesque faces, and anguished expressions as mentioned as a typical actor’s style in German Expressionism!

Thematic Style:

Both Edward Scissorshand and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari touch on the themes of madness. Edward is referred to as a “perversion of nature” by a town folk, a psycho for having scissors as hand. The madness in the film could also be interpreted as anger, seen through Edward’s two anger outbursts at the Kevin, one resulting in Kevin’s death at the end. In Dr Caligari, the plot later shifts to an asylum, eventually revealing Francis as a mental patient.

The theme of isolation also resonated very strongly in Edward Scissorshand. Edward is forced to live in isolation in the castle from the rest of the town folks before being brought into town by Peg. But the isolation he had carried with him also caused his host family to be isolated from their neighbours, as seen when neighbours boycotted their Christmas party. At the end of the film, Edward is forced back to live in isolation in his castle once again, a depressing ending indeed. Edward’s isolation is inspired by Tim Burton’s own isolation he felt when he was a teenager (http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/14887/revisiting-tim-burtons-edward-scissorhands). Comparing it Dr Caligari, the period of German Expressionism emerged and gave rise to Dr Caligari as a result of the German Film industry’s isolation between 1916 and 1921.

Isolation may be viewed upon as a negative attribute, with a destructive ability to cause madness. However, isolation bears in itself the power to conceive newness, the power to give birth to new expressions that challenges norms. This significantly sheds light into how isolation is a power force that drives the thirst for validation, not just in German expressionistic films and Edward, but also in us as human beings. That perhaps, the most significant of of all people, are the isolated ones.