The European Rest Cure (1904)

The above is the US director Edwin S. Porter’s  The European Rest Cure (1904), a satire on the tourist industry. The film can also be taken as a play on the highly popular cinematic genre of the travelogue, just as can Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902.)

Anne Friedberg offers a good discussion of this film in her book Window Shopping, which I reprint below:

In Edwin S. Porter’s half-reel comedy, The European Rest Cure (1904), the narrative makes a simple point: the “rest cure” of a European “grand tour” proves to be far from restful; the “foreign” is dangerous, the familiar benign. In addition to this narrative content, the form of the film illustrates the similarities between the narrative conventions of early cinema and tourist operations.

The European Rest Cure is a thirteen-shot film that mixes actuality footage with acted fictional setups. It was a common trope for Porter to mix actuality footage with contrived narrative; of the film’s thirteen shots, six are exterior (five introductory and one concluding shot), and seven are studio tableaux. The story is designed to dissuade the traveler from exotic locales; the natural beauty of home is presented in the photographic fluidity of the exterior shots of the harbor and pier.

The tour itself is a series of claustrophobically circumscribed studio tableaux. Each shot is a stop on the “grand tour” (Kissing the Blarney Stone, Doing Paris, Climbing the Alps, Hold Up in Italy, Climbing the Pyramids of Egypt, The Mudbaths of Germany). The narrative is told as a series of “foreign” spaces, each made static and confined. The characters move left to right or right to left through interior spaces with painted backdrops. In each tableau, our tourist is thrown off balance, or falls off frame, or cowers at the center of the shot. For the spectator of the film the foreign is presented in very clumsy faux-virtual landscapes, coded in a set of familiar xenophobic clichés. Paradoxically, “home” is represented with more realistic detail – actual footage of the harbor and port and with more camera mobility. As a film that professes an antitravel message, it asserts the beauty of cinematic spectatorship as a more spectacular and fluid form of virtual mobility.

The Book You Never Read, or, London: Sympathy for a City

A song about anger and alcohol. A film about London.

The song was inspired by The Handsome Family’s ‘So Much Wine’. The visuals are inspired by Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927.)

As always I’d love to hear what you think. Enjoy!

Reading the Movies: Some Books for Cinephiles!

I’ve been asked by fellow-blogger Movieman0283 over at The Dancing Image to join him and a few others in writing a little something each on our favourite books on cinema. I don’t really know where to start so have reached for the first things on my shelves I could find that I could hold my hand on my heart and say ‘Yes, I really like this book!’ So, without further ado:

 

1. Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut (ed.)

Photo 8The first book to get on Hitchcock and the one that you’ll keep turning back to over the years. My edition, from 1969, is a snug size that I can fit into a broad pocket – much nicer in my opinion than the clumpy A4 editions that seem to be the norm for this book at the moment. I very much like the cover design too with a vertiginous swirl distorting Hitch’s face with the left side of his face darker than the right, much like Judy’s face appears at that moment in her apartment in VertigoThis book is simply jam-packed full of ideas about filmmaking – Truffaut got a great deal out of Hitch and follows him through his whole career chronologically. His famous contrast between suspense and surprise is in here but so too is his fascinating notion of ‘saving’ the long shot, with everything in a scene (what we would typically term the ‘establishing shot’), until it can be put to a purpose. It’s also fascinating to read as a marker of its time, the mid-60s (when the interviews were done.) Truffaut and the Cahiers gang had all made films but were still young and Truffaut’s admiration for the man he clearly considers THE master of cinema is palpable. Incidentally Hitch doesn’t come across as too enthused about Chabrol and Rohmer’s portrait of him as a Catholic filmmaker in their monograph. Here are Truffaut’s words on Hitchcock at the close of his introduction:

     If in the era of Ingmar Bergman, one accepts the promise that cinema is an art form, on a par with literature, I suggest that Hitchcock belongs – and why classify him at all? – among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoevsky and Poe.

     In the light of their own doubts these artists of anxiety can hardly be expected to show us how to live; their mission is simply to share with us the anxieties that haunt them. Consciously or not, this is their way of helping us to understand ourselves, which is, after all, a fundamental purpose of any work of art. 

 

2. The Women Who Knew Too Much, by Tania Modleski

large.snazal.comThere are of course many great books on Hitchcock that I could cite here but this is one that’s certainly had an effect on me personally. Modleski basically attempts to stand between the polar opposition of perspectives on Hitchcock’s view of women – that he was a misogynist (Mulvey) or that he was a proto-feminist (Wood.) She humorously undercuts Wood’s wish to “save” Hitchcock for feminism as auteurist romanticism, making it clear that her intention is to “save” feminism for film studies (or vice-versa.) She achieves this through the close study of Hitchcock’s position on women in seven films. Modleski terms Hitch “ambivalent” about women and – similarly to Truffaut above – suggests that his talent, and more importantly his value for a feminist “reader” of his films, comes from the clarity of his expression of his anxieties about women.

 

3. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era, by Matthew Bernstein (ed.)

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The Depth of Field series is a terrific one and I could just as easily have recommended the collections on Film and Nationalism and Movies and Mass Culture in this series. These collections bring together previously published work by some of the most important academic figures on the subject. The books are very well put together and the introduction is always authoritative.


4. Parallel Tracks, by Lynne Kirby

Photo 9A book on film with a truly innovative form in its discussion on the interrelation of the railroad and cinema as twin engines of the onslaught of modernity. It’s also a joy to read combining in all the right ways history, theory and textual analysis of the movies and the railroad. The kind of book I’d love to be able to write someday… 

 

5. “Film Europe” and “Film America”: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange 1920-1939, by Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby (eds.)

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A groundbreaking collection that takes as its starting point a small period in the late 20s and early 30s in which there was a hope that a “Film Europe” could be established, with the nations of Europe combining forces in an attempt to match and compete with Hollywood cinema’s worldwide “Imperialist” dominance of cinema screens. While this hope ultimately failed the book uses this as a means towards discussing Hollywood world-dominance in the inter-war period in a manner that is refreshingly clear of hyperbole and that goes beyond the notion of a simple, top-down hegemony. This book is full of historical details on tariffs, embargoes and contingencies and definitely not one to take with you to the beach… But it goes beyond the details of economic exchange on this subject laid out so well in Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment, putting as much emphasis on cultural exchange. It’s a difficult read but really worth the effort,  to get a strong, grounded sense of the globalism and transnationalism of cinema that was just beginning at this stage but that is now central to the medium; lest we forget that, for example, The Lord of the Rings was really a German film…

 

6. Fritz Lang in America, by P. Bogdanovich

Photo 5Fritz Lang, in my opinion, was a serious intellectual and you can learn a lot from what he had to say about his films. It’s necessary to take Lang’s specific historical details and his self-mythologising with a pinch of salt, but the essence of Lang’s views on cinema in this book are invaluable. 

 

7. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

Photo 11I think we all get an attachment to the specific editions of books that we’ve read, but again I prefer this edition to the regular one with a colour photo. Ok, since I’ve written quite a bit on this book on this site I’ll redirect you to this stuff, of which I’m quite proud. First there is a segment from the opening of the novel here, then there is a piece of writing on that segment and its discussion of cinema here and finally there is a follow-up piece here. It’s all quite easy to read I promise!

 

8. Hollywood Modernism, by Saverio Giovacchini

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The film still on the cover is from Confessions of a Nazi Spy (WB, 1939) the first film, as the tag-line went, that dared to ‘call a swastika a swastika.’ It’s a fascinating film that strangely, considering its historical importance, still remains completely unavailable on DVD or VHS. I have a copy of the film on the now obsolete format of the Video-CD (VCD), which is probably quite rare and seems to be the only way this film has been released. Giovacchini’s book forcefully counters the myth that Hollywood cinema, and Hollywood culture in general, of the 1930s and 40s produced only vacuous mass entertainment and was completely unwilling to discuss politics and the problems of modern society. He draws attention to heated discussions over the nature of “realism” in the 1930s and the immense national strength and influence of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. I’ve written a little about the HANL in an essay on Meet John Doe (1941) here. Giovacchini’s book is a very enjoyable read.

 

9. Time Out Film Guide 2008, by Geoff Andrew (ed)

51Pybabto8L._SS500_You’ll notice I’ve put the 2008 edition here – this is no slight on the latest edition but just the edition I happen to have; it also has a rather lovely image of Penelope Cruz that I couldn’t resist having on my site.. Anyway, the Time Out Film Guide is without a doubt the best film guide on offer in Britain – I haven’t looked at that many of the US ones but they’d have to be pretty strong to compete. It certainly seems to be the guide with the most space for World Cinema. There are no star ratings and reviews don’t generally contain synopses – instead they offer acute observations and understanding of the films discussed, crammed into very few words. Reviews do generally make it clear if the critic liked the film but are so well drawn that you can come away from a review that slammed a film with so much detail that you feel you want to see the film anyway. This happened for me, for instance, when I read the review of Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (1997), which described the film as ‘a piece of shit.’ In this instance the critic got it wrong, by the way – hardly a great film but kind of weirdly enjoyable. But I’ll repeat that generally the reviews are uncannily accurate.

 

10. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson

coverpageI’ve been pondering over what should be my last book here and felt I couldn’t really leave this one out. Love it or hate it The Classical Hollywood Cinema is probably one of the most important books in film studies. Bordwell et al set out to define the characteristics of an “ordinary” film. Of course it is contentious to imply that Golden Age Hollywood set the “norm” for which all other kinds of cinema (0f the “World” or the “avant-garde”) become the aberration and risks simplifying matters. Yet within the specific context of mainstream American cinema, in the period of the Studio System and its “dream factory”, this model certainly has value. The research in this text is incredibly thorough and when reading through a chapter you occasionally get the sense that the information and ideas here are equivalent to the amount you’d get from reading ten other books. Bordwell’s blog on cinema Observations on film art and Film Art is also essential reading.

 

That’s as much as I have the energy for right now! By the way, they’re not in any order of greatness, of course… Please comment to let me know what you think of these choices, whether you’ve read the books or not – I love to hear what you guys think. And get reading!

My First Film: ‘A Snowman’s Dream’

A lonesome snowman sitting on Vaughan Road, West Harrow, dreams himself transported to Harrow on the Hill and watches the beautiful people playing in the snow. The song is ‘I Can See It Now’ by the Walker Brothers. Filmed on the 2nd February 2009 in Harrow, London. The film is inspired by the Lumiere Brothers and others. Enjoy!

Metropolitan (1990)

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I’ve just watched Metropolitan (1990) on BBC iPlayer and if you happen to be checking-in here in late June I suggest trying to catch it there, as it’s an excellent film. Actually I should say “re-watched”, since I saw this film when I was very young. My parents showed it to me when I was, I’d say, about 12 years old. I remember being very affected by the film at the time, the reason why I’m now tapping these keys at 2.30 am..

The thing I remember being most affected by was the suggestion by the male protagonist Tom Townsend, an ardent socialist in amongst the cream of New York’s “social scene”,  that it wasn’t necessary to have read Austen or Tolstoy to have an opinion on their works’ relative merit. Tom has read far too much theory and become detached from the “work itself” the film is partly telling us, yet Tom’s world of ideas is shown respect in this scene:

Charlie Black: Fourierism was tried in the late nineteenth century… and it failed. Wasn’t Brook Farm Fourierist? It failed.
Tom Townsend: That’s debatable.
Charlie Black: Whether Brook Farm failed?
Tom Townsend: That it ceased to exist, I’ll grant you, but whether or not it failed cannot be definitively said.
Charlie Black: Well, for me, ceasing to exist is — is failure. I mean, that’s pretty definitive.
Tom Townsend: Well, everyone ceases to exist. Doesn’t mean everyone’s a failure.

Anyway this kind of prattle fascinated me as a kid and I’m happy to say that as an adult all the smart and witty chatter (which I can fully understand now!) still seemed pretty smart. I remember being stunned by this idea anyway, that you could read the critics on the books and not the books themselves – I was fascinated at the time, no doubt spurred on by the fact that my parents are both English teachers…

I say the film’s “male protagonist” and this perhaps shows an anxiety over the gender-ownership of the film’s narrative. I started to realise halfway through watching Metropolitan that the film’s female character Audrey Rouget was as central if not more central than the man who had appeared to be clearly the lead, an outsider poor West-side New Yorker discovering and socialising with the wealthy East-siders. Molly Ringwald was the undisputed star of John Hughes’ ’80s teen-films and as intellectual as Metropolitan is on the surface its social-networking narrative makes it clearly in part an extension of these classic films. As it happens Carolyn Farina, who plays Audrey Rouget, is the spitting image of Molly Ringwald. And actually the film opens with a scene between Audrey and her mother, emphasising the film’s status as a coming-of-age film and appearing to present this as her coming-of-age. Yet the character that we follow the closest throughout the film is actually Tom.

If there’s a dialectic in the film, for me right now, it’s between Molly who is incredibly well-read in literature and Tom who is incredibly well-read in theory. This theory/art dialectic is I guess ultimately just the age-old opposition of man-intellect/woman-heart. Perhaps theory is intended to be the loser of the battle, since Tom admits that Fourierism may not have been so great after all. But if so this is hardly rammed down our throats. I certainly didn’t accept this as a kid, even tho I remember my mum suggesting that really you should read Austen if you’re going to talk about her.. And all the way through the film Tom is admired by the whole social group for his intelligence.

Yet I think it is the admiration of Audrey for Tom and her search for a copy of a book by Fourier that most affirms that Tom’s theories may not be so bad after all. This crossover of interests between the pair also asserts something that I felt throughout the film – not only the  assertion that ideas are as important as art, but also that the pair cannot be separated. Tom brings from his poorer background a wealth of ideas to his newfound beautiful, decadent friends. As in Brideshead Revisited - another childhood TV experience for me – Metropolitan indulges in a significant amount of romance and nostalgia around the narrative of the “downward mobility” of the “feminised” heart of the high aristocracy in the modern world (in Brideshead “homosexualised”), seen again from the p.o.v. of a male protagonist from a poorer background. Yet Metropolitan is equally, from another angle, another version of the admiration for quick-witted intellectualism to be found in Manhattan (1979.) Anyway, whatever it is it’s a wonderful film all of its own and I’m surprised to see that its writer-director Whit Stillman doesn’t seem to have gone on to do anything that much since. Well, this one’s a memorable one, so check it out if you have the time!

A Conference Crawl: ‘Textual Revolutions’ at the University of Stirling and ‘Pioneering Endeavours’ at the University of Essex!

This weekend I spoke  at two conferences, one at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and the other at the University of Essex. This is the first time I’ve given papers.. Friday I read my paper in Stirling and took the sleeper train down that night. Saturday I was in Essex and read the paper again there. So, a bit of a baptism by fire!

The first conference, at the University of Stirling, was on ‘Textual Revolutions.’ It was interdisciplinary and its Call For Papers, put together by organisers Gary Cape and Steven Craig, was an extremely inspired one, if a little intimidating:

Hegel’s belief in the redemptive power of revolution – that revolution is part of an essentially benign process of history – is at odds with Friedrich Nietzsche’s position that revolution is a ‘source of energy in mankind grown feeble but never a regulator, architect, artist, [or] perfector of human nature’.  This tension over the nature of revolution constitutes our point of departure in an interdisciplinary forum that seeks to explore ‘revolutions’ and the language of revolution.

 I won’t lie – I modified work that I already had, making it fit the conference title.. At the same time the title and the questions posed were thought-provoking and had some effect on my final draft. The conference at Essex, called ‘Pioneering Endeavours’, was a smaller occasion, with my fellow PhD students, and I got some particularly valuable feedback here from colleagues. I’m really surprised at how much writing a paper for a real audience, and working on the assumption that many of them would not be from a Film Studies discipline, helped me to clarify for myself a sense of what my study is all about. It makes you simplify things too. While this can certainly have its problems, it does allow you to see things in a slightly more abstract way, seeing the bigger picture to some extent. Talking of which, I publish below the “abstract” that I initially sent out. I’m hoping to get a video-recording up here too, fairly soon, of the full paper, along with a text version. But for now!:

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Between Griffith and Brecht: Cinema and the Transnational in Fritz Lang’s Fury.

Fritz Lang’s first American film Fury (1936) poses both ontological questions on the nature of cinema and political questions on the position of the émigré. Close textual analysis of the ways in which these questions interrelate within Fury reveals a work deeply engaged with the complexities and contradictions of the turbulent 1930s.

Beyond more obvious readings of Fury as representing either Nazism in Germany or lynching in America, we can see the film as offering a transnational discourse on the nature of cinema. This is achieved through a division at the film’s mid-point, shifting from an impulsive cinematic style to a rationalist meta-cinematic one, codified as in turn “American” (via e.g. the technique of cross-cutting developed by Griffith) and “European” (via e.g. Brecht’s lehrstucke, or learning-plays.) Contrary to readings of the film as, through its outsider protagonist, in support of the apparently superior perspective of the “exile” filmmaker, this dialectic places both the director and audience within the text as active agents of cinematic form. Considering Lang under the alternative paradigm of the “tourist” reveals, ironically, a politically committed filmmaker. Caren Kaplan notes that ‘Rather than simply inventing modernity through … recognition and documentation, the tourist acts as a witness to the breakup of modernity. The tourist … straddles eras, modes of production, and systems of thought.’ Close analysis of Lang’s Fury reveals a Marxist filmmaker, grappling with his new role in Hollywood, not merely allegorizing the differences between “American” and “European” cinema (as in his previous films) but rather tying this dialectic into the film’s structure and its patterns of audience identification. Encouraged to recognize the inevitably “touristic” nature of the cinematic experience the viewer of Fury becomes, potentially, part of a transnational cinematic language of revolution.

Movies in Literature Part 4: Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Illusions’

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Above are a couple of pictures of Hank Mann, a silent comedian with a big moustache. I think these can serve as nice illustrations for the character Hector Mann in Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions. In fact online I find a description of this guy that reminds me a little of the silent comedian  that Auster lovingly constructs in his novel: ‘His junkyard-dog face was softened a bit by a huge paintbrush mustache, which emphasized his expressive, almost wistful eyes.’

In the first chapter of The Book of Illusions we meet our protagonist-narrator David Zimmer, an academic in Comparative Literature who has recently lost his wife and children in a plane crash. In the depths of his depression he turns the TV on to find a retrospective of silent comedy and becomes glued to the image of the long-forgotten Hector Mann. As an academic he, of course, can’t leave it at that and with the money from his wife’s life insurance he jet-sets it across the globe, planning to watch the surviving films, in various nations’ archives. 

The three short sequences selected below come from Chapter Two of the novel, beginning with Zimmer’s description of Hector Mann’s character and moving on to his description of a late Mann film Mr Nobody, the darkness of which is attributed to production difficulties and the fears of the coming of new sound technology. In Mr Nobody Hector runs the Fizzy Pop Beverage Corporation and is turned invisible by an assistant, who wants to take control of his company. This simple comic trope is given something of a philosophical turn in Auster’s hands..

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  Before the body, there is the face, and before the face, there is the thin black line between Hector’s nose and upper lip. A twitching filament of anxieties, a metaphysical jump rope, a dancing thread of discombobulation, the mustache is a seismograph of Hector’s inner states, and not only does it make you laugh, it tells you what Hector is thinking, actually allows you into the machinery of his thoughts. Other elements are involved-the eyes, the mouth, the finely calibrated lurches and stumbles-but the mustache is the instrument of communication, and even though it speaks a language without words, its wriggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message tapped out in Morse code.

  None of this would be possible without the intervention of the camera. The intimacy of the talking mustache is a creation of the lens. At various moments in each of Hector’s films, the angle suddenly changes, and a wide or medium shot is replaced by a close-up. Hector’s face fills the screen, and with all references to the environment eliminated, the mustache becomes the center of the world. It begins to move, and because Hector’s skill is such that he can control the muscles in the rest of his face, the mustache appears to be moving on its own, like a small animal, with an independent consciousness and will. The mouth curls a bit at the corners, the nostrils flare ever so slightly, but as the mustache goes through its antic gyrations, the face is essentially still, and in that stillness one sees oneself as if in a mirror, for it is during these moments that Hector is most fully and convincingly human, a reflection of what we all are when we’re alone inside ourselves. These close-up sequences are reserved for the critical passages of a story, the junctures of greatest tension or surprise, and they never last longer than four or five seconds. When they occur, everything else stops. The mustache launches into its soliloquy, and for those few precious moments, action gives way to thought. We can read the content of Hector’s mind as though it were spelled out in letters across the screen, and before those letters vanish, they are no less visible than a building, a piano, or a pie in the face. 

  In motion the mustache is a tool for expressing the thoughts of all men. In repose it is little more than an ornament.

  He goes outside again and starts walking through the streets. The downtown boulevards are deserted, and Hector appears to be the only person left in the city. What has happened to the crowds and commotion that surrounded him before? Where are the cars and trolleys, the masses of people thronging the sidewalk? For a moment we wonder if the spell has not been reversed. Perhaps Hector is visible again, we think, and everyone else has vanished. Then, out of nowhere, a truck drives by, speeding through a puddle. Plumes of water rise up from the pavement, splashing everything in sight. Hector is drenched, but when the camera turns around to show us the damage, the front of his suit is spotless. It should be a funny moment, but it isn’t, and in that Hector deliberately makes it not funny (a long doleful look at his suit; the disappointment in his eyes when he sees that he is not splattered with mud), this simple trick alters the mood of the film. As night falls, we see him returning to his house. He goes in, climbs the stairs to the second floor, and enters his children’s bedroom. The little girl and the little boy are asleep, each one in a separate bed. He sits down beside the girl, studies her face for a few moments, and then lifts his hand to begin stroking her hair. Just as he is about to touch her, however, he stops himself, suddenly realizing that his hand could wake her, and if she woke up in the darkness and found no one there, she would be frightened. It’s an affecting sequence, and Hector plays it with restraint and simplicity. He has lost the right to touch his own daughter, and as we watch him hesitate and then finally withdraw his hand, we experience the full impact of the curse that has been put on him. In that one small gesture – the hand hovering in the air, the open palm no more than an inch from the girl’s head – we understand that Hector has been reduced to nothing.

  The screen fades to black. When the picture returns, it is morning, and daylight is flooding through the curtains. Cut to a shot of Hector’s wife, still asleep in bed. Then cut to Hector, asleep in the chair. His body is contorted into an impossible position, a comic tangle of splayed limbs and twisted joints, and because we aren’t prepared for the sight of this slumbering pretzel-man, we laugh, and with that laugh the mood of the film changes again. Dearest Beloved wakes first, and as she opens her eyes and sits up in bed her face tells us everything – moving rapidly from joy to disbelief to guarded optimism. She springs out of bed and rushes over to Hector. She touches his face (which is dangling backward over the arm of the chair), and Hector’s body goes into a spasm of high-voltage shocks, jumping around in a flurry of arms and legs that ultimately lands him in an upright position. Then he opens his eyes. Involuntarily, without seeming to remember that he is supposed to be invisible, he smiles at her. They kiss, but just as their lips come into contact, he recoils in confusion. Is he really there? Has the spell been broken, or is he only dreaming it? He touches his face, he runs his hands over his chest, and then he looks his wife in the eyes. Can you see me? he asks. Of course I can see you, she says, and as her eyes fill with tears, she leans forward and kisses him again. But Hector is not convinced. He stands up from his chair and walks forward to a mirror hanging on the wall. The proof is in the mirror, and if he is able to see his reflection, he will know that the nightmare is over. That he does see it is a foregone conclusion, but the beautiful thing about that moment is the slowness of his response. For a second or two, the expression on his face remains the same, and as he peers into the eyes of the man staring back at him from the wall, it’s as if he’s looking at a stranger, encountering a face he has never seen before. Then, as the camera moves in for a closer shot, Hector begins to smile. Coming on the heels of that chilling blankness, the smile suggests something more than a simple rediscovery of himself. He is no longer looking at the old Hector. He is someone else now, and however much he might resemble the person he used to be, he has been reinvented, turned inside-out, and spat forth as a new man. The smile grows larger, more radiant, more satisfied with the face that he has found in the mirror. A circle begins to close around it, and soon we can see nothing but that smiling mouth, the mouth and the mustache above it. The mustache twitches for a few seconds, and then the circle grows smaller, then smaller still. When it finally shuts, the film is over.