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*Contains Spoilers*


Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, was set and filmed in Cornwall, England. It is about a married couple, David Sumner, an American mathematician and his beautiful British wife Amy who return to her home village to escape the anti-Vietnam War protests. They are soon harassed by the locals and the finale consists of David finally standing up to them and defending his home, revealing the aggressive nature in himself that is a primal, masculine trait, suggesting that we are all animals and that society and its ideologies are a masquerade. Rod Lurie’s 2011 remake was shot in Mississippi, USA, a lush contrast to the original film. This time a script writer and actress, moving from L.A so that David can finish a script. The narrative unfolds the same way but the contrast in settings is clear.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

Stereotypically rural places and 'Rural Horror' such as The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973) are seen as a return to nature, a purer landscape compared to the urban environment. However, these portrayals in both films have received negative reception as the representations offended the locals who became concerned about the rural stereotypes. The ‘locals’ are portrayed as violent but devoutly religious, as seen in the remake in which the town attends church, reinforcing this stereotype. In the scene, David, an atheist, leaves the service, an act which enrages the locals.


Stereotyped rural inhabitants are of the lower class, un-educated, and misogynistic. In the film there are many occasions when women are treated as objects and belittled, such as the rape scenes. There are also suggestions of inbreeding which is explored in other rural films such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The seclusion of the areas create a heavy and brooding atmosphere for the characters, Cornwall’s rustic moor settings, with its tiny villages give the occupants an unhealthy closeness in their relationships. Therefore strangers aren’t accepted. They shun outsiders who threaten their ideals and values.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (2011)

The dominant ideology surrounding the English farming country and the ‘backwoods’ of America denotes tranquillity and peace within these locations. However, there is a significant contrast between the locations in the 1971 and 2011 films. Peckinpahs is the typical rainy Britain. ‘The weather adds a spooky surreal element to the picture too; we see very little sunshine through perpetually-grey skies, and the fog that rolls in off the sea at night gives the siege at the end of the film, a look for horror.’ (Mercer, 2011) This is visually more claustrophobic and in many ways enhances the eerie setting.

In comparison, Lurie’s remake conveys the aesthetic quality of the modern technology that removes some of the grittiness from older ‘backwoods’ classics. Furthermore the climate is warmer and it’s sunnier, the feel to the film more spacious in the clear weather. However, the run-down town and the dusty appearance of the Deep South make the country unappealing and gritty. In surrounding forests, where they hunt, vast woodland goes on for miles; Lurie’s characters are trapped by this geographic location.


One Mississippi resident described the opening sequence to Straw Dogs (2011) offensive, ‘…quick images of trailer parks, confederate flags, rural decay, barking dogs, misogynistic bar patrons harassing waitresses…basically a representation of what people stereotypically fear about Mississippi and the south in general.’ (Cooper, 2011). Other films such as Deliverance (1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978) have sparked similar criticisms. These films embrace the settings as many audiences are drawn to the escapist qualities of ‘rural horror’. Fearing these isolated places has become part of the genre’s iconography.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

However, Peckinpah’s opening is a slower sequence. Haunting and eerie, there is a peculiar score, unusual in its slow tempo and diegetic sound of children playing and singing. There seems to be something unnerving about the town as the children play happily in the grave-yard, oblivious to the resting place of the dead. This sequence reveals more about the location whilst setting the tone but not over using the stereotypes instantly, these follow later. Peckinpah utilises the natural light and surroundings of Cornwall’s moors to emphasise a sense of foreboding within the mise-en-scene.


Secluded landscapes in these films are the 'utopian fantasy' (Dryer, 1977) for the protagonists choosing to escape the chaos of urban living, the irony being that they now must confront their own misconceptions. In Deliverance, Straw Dogs and I Spit on Your Grave, the protagonists try to get inspiration from the isolation of the countryside. The original David subverts his passive beliefs and un-masculine ways in an ironic finale which is the siege of the farmhouse. After escaping the protests that had become physical wars between the youths in America, the Sumners were thrown into a new war, forced to fight against the locals. Peckinpahs’ statement and use of irony could suggest the message that conflict is human nature and that man will always unleash savage and ruthless instincts when protecting their property.


The invasion narrative has been spoofed in the media repeatedly over the years for example in the black comedy The Cottage (2008), TV series The League of Gentlemen and even An American Werewolf in London (1981) features suspicious locals who dislike the backpackers. Although this stereotype is considered absurd, it is repeatedly used in horror cinema.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (2011)

There is also another convention that the locals follow, ‘We take care of our own here.’ There is a lack of authority in the townships, the police constable/sheriff of the towns are often a higher social class with a, seemingly, higher education. Not always present, their rule is repeatedly undermined by the workers. During the opening scenes of Straw Dogs ’71 and ‘11, the police arrive at the pub/bar and not once do the locals seem intimidated by the law enforcement but seem to mock it, subsequently brawls ensue.

The ‘barbarian’ locals reign over the locations and therefore take the law into their own hands. The final act of Straw Dogs clearly demonstrates this both films pan out in this way. When the town simpleton, Niles, is accused of abducting the town flirt, Janice, her father, Tom who is also the town drunk, the workers, including Amy’s rapists, are told of his whereabouts and attack the Sumners home. David and Amy accidentally hit Niles with their car on their way home and take him back with them where they plan to call for medical assistance. When the constable arrives, he confronts the men outside, only to be shot dead. Any hope of the characters being saved is gone as the local men do not fear the consequences of their actions. Therefore the protagonist takes the law into his own hands to prove his masculinity and defend his home and that he will defend it.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

In comparison to the American backwoods films, Peckinpah takes a more chilling approach. ‘The heroes of Deliverance or The Hills Have Eyes are given no choice but to fight and kill, attacked suddenly by monstrous villains who seem hardly human.’ (Newman, 2002) Newman argues how normal the antagonists are in contrast to these other films, and the extreme lengths David goes to in the end to defend his wife and home. Their intelligence is perceived as lower than the average middle-class citizen, and Lurie’s ‘Red necks’ are just that. Furthermore their emotional capability is lessened; the original was kinder on its villains. They were spontaneous and yet, generally, they had motives for the final sequence. They were twisted and inhumane about their actions but they weren’t barbaric Neanderthals that the remake portrayed them to be. One reviewer described the directors’ attempt on portraying the Deep South as, ‘…hamfistedly depicting his characters as such shallow, purposeless clichés, he’s removed any sense of depth or complexity.’ (N/A)

An example of this is the opening in which Amy and David travel into town to eat at the bar. Housed here are dirty, plaid wearing, men who harass the barmaid. Typical of the genre, rural horror, they are loud mouthed, offensive and all know one another very well, excluding David from the town instantly. They emasculate him and are overly intimidating. They are more similar to the ‘Hillbillies’ in Deliverance than Peckinpahs complex characters. The psychological horror of the film is absent in the remake which was one of the originals’ greatest strengths. R. Hogg and K. Carrington describe films like this highlight the key concept of the genre in that ‘…the rural is represented as a dark, hostile, alien environment, peopled by dangerous, atavistic types (“murderous yokels”) who prey on naïve, urban innocents.’ (Hogg, Carrington, 2006)

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

The original’s pub sequence is interesting; it has the essence of the old westerns, a masculine genre; about fighting for place in society, for authority or lands. This echoes the western genre significantly as David steps into the building and is watched by all the regulars whilst buying a packet of cigarettes. The bleak interiors of the pub, the gruff men scattered about it, the typical flat caps worn by most of the men, the mise-en-scene doesn’t entirely fit with David’s western-like entrance. But it still conveys the main theme of seclusion.


The menacing locals observe the American, their clothes not in fashion with the urban lifestyle outside of their village. There is minimal editing compared to the remake which uses many technical horror clichés, missing out on the psychological torture that Amy and David go through the entire film due to the hostile local men. This scene highlights a hierarchy in the village, that it is the working class citizens who have control, who are the biggest threat to the American, emasculating him and driving him to the very edge. Once he reaches this point, he descends into primal fury.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (2011)

Women are objects of the ‘Male Gaze’ (Mulvey, 1975), the promiscuous Janice, the barmaid in the remake and Amy, society to degrade them, which is probably one of the reasons why Mrs Sumner originally left. Most of the other women are stay at home wives which shows how far behind the towns are. These societies are not fully in touch with the outside world, living in the past with older morals and values. There is a strong religious ideology amongst these secluded, rural societies, not that many of them follow by it closely. There are church going citizens who clash with Sumners’ own atheism, in the remake he steps out of the church, disrespectfully, during a service to sit in his car until it ended.


In the original, religion is not one of the main issues for the couple, unlike Lurie’s. This emphasises the location, the Deep South of North America as having a history of strong religious beliefs leading to a conflict of ideologies. In the remake, this sequence is much more dramatic due to the strong faith within the state. Peckinpahs’ David is rude to the vicar and his wife when they visit their home but this does not lead to bitter feuds, they both seem more accepting of each other’s beliefs. The villages host a church social which everyone attends, even the Sumners. There is a mutual understanding within the community; it is a small town tradition that brings everyone closer together. However, this is after Amys’ double rape and David has fired the workers from repairing their garage. There is hostility in the air and the cheery atmosphere of the scene is over shadowed by the Amys’ fear and her husband’s discomfort with the other villagers.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

In conclusion, both films portray regressive representations of rural Cornwall and the Deep South, the remake consists of common, exaggerated stereotypes that damage the locations reputation. Peckinpah relies on the English countryside and nature to inspire the unnerving atmosphere; meanwhile clichés are used in the remake to shock the audience. Both locations are key features to the stories; a close-knit society is needed to achieve the tone of the film that takes mankind back to its primitive state. The directors embraced the setting and exploited the beauty of its lost-in-time appearance, creating an unsettling territory where the law does not seem to apply.



References:

B. Mercer. (2011) Straw Dogs compared: an in-depth look at the 1971 original and 2011 remake. http://www.cinemasoldier.com/articles/2011/10/4/straw-dogs-compared-an-in-depth-look-at-the-1971original-an.html

C. Cooper. (2011) Does Straw Dogs (2011) harm Mississippi’s reputation?, http://www.smalltowncritic.com/2011/12/23/does-straw-dogs-2011-harm-mississippis-reputation/

R. Dyer. (1977) Utopian Fantasy Theory

K. Newman. (2002). History of Straw Dogs and the Censors. Article distributed by Fremantle

N.A, http://www.pajiba.com/film_reviews/straw-dogs-review-the-first-rule-of-remaking-peckinpahdont.php,

R. Hogg, K. Carrington. (2006) Policing the Rural Crisis. Sydney. Federation Press.

L. Mulvey. (1975) Male Gaze Theory, Visual pleasure in Narrative Cinema


Screencaps:

Straw Dogs. (1971) Film. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. [DVD]. UK: Freemantle.

Straw Dogs. (2011) Film. Directed by Rob Lurie. [DVD]. UK: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.


(Originally Composed 20/03/2013 as a research project with regard to Horror tropes in Cinema)

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Last night I dreamt of boy with blue eyes. He found me in at the bar in a sleazy night club, returning my friend to me having found her pooping in the DJ booth. He was tall, with wavy hair and told me that he'd screwed his home economics teacher resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and a tumultuous custody battle. He was honest, or so I could tell by looking into his red, puffy eyes. Childless and penniless, he'd moved from street to street, all over town. He was my dream boy.

The next day, I wrote about him on the back of a used tissue I had in my pocket. And now the bastard is pissing in my shower and riddling my PC with viruses as he Googles 'Sexy Girl-on-Girl Horseplay'.

His name is Rusty Flares...


That's the basis of this melancholic dramedy, with a modern 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' twist. And, jokes aside, it works well. (I don't know why I felt the need for Rusty but Rusty shall stay.)


Be careful what you wish for. That's what our protagonist, Calvin (Performed interestingly by Paul Dano), discovers when he conjures his own dream girl through the power of his magic typewriter by the name of Ruby Sparks. Suddenly his decade long writers-block, doesn't seem so troublesome to him. Feeding off the fame from his previous book, uptight and set in his ways, craving 'real love' from a woman rather than a 'fan', Ruby comes as a cry for help to be loved by Calvin. In time, however, Ruby isn't all she's cracked up to be, but the writer has a solution for that. And he returns to the typewriter again.

"How harmful is that fantasy to real life?"

From the directors that brought us Little Miss Sunshine, Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris followed up their quirky masterpiece with an equally quirky romance. It had been on my watch-list for years and to this day I don't know how I hadn't gotten around to it, but a spur of the moment decision led to an evening with the flatmates eating crisps and engaging in something fluffy and light. That wasn't quite what we got.


It's a wonderful criticism on the male fantasy. The role of the writer is called-out. What is their responsibility? The crafting of characters can become bizarre wish-fulfillment which is every writers right. But does one have to draw the line somewhere? When reality meets and enters fantasy? How harmful is that fantasy to real life? The average writer probably wouldn't think that deep but the film enters a dark realm where the role of the 'dream girl' progresses into something more realistic and depressing. That may be for the better.

"The film is dated by it's quirk but not by it's message."

Zoe Kazan penned this and performed as the titular role. To gain the perspective of a woman on this much discussed character trope brings a new light on the topic. She asks the question: With the harsh expectations placed on women to be the fantasy, what is the woman's responsibility to a man? And if a man could change those flaws when things became too challenging, would he? Would he try to understand them? These are all things this film seems to illuminate. She can't answer them for sure but she sure leaves us with an interesting after thought. Kazan brings to the role a dignity that other 'manic pixie dream girls' have been deprived of (We're looking at you Elizabethtown) and feels like a final say on the whole matter.


The film is dated by it's quirk but not by it's message. The first half an hour we were distracted by much of the 'quirkiness': the typewriter, the costumes, the dialogue. All a bit edgy. But once the story kicked in, one could look past all that and enjoy the story for what it is.


The cast is pretty darn good. Calvin's brother, performed with great comedic edge by Chris Messina is the experienced brother. Who has actually lived with and raised a child with a woman. He is the one who shines a light on the reality of relationships and we slowly learn throughout the film through him and other side characters that Calvin may not be such a victim in love after all. Another stand out is Antonio Banderas, as Calvin's mothers (Played by Annette Bening) new husband. Delightful, strange and a wonderful affinity with the pet dog Scottie, his presence in scenes are funny and undoubtedly enjoyable.


Not my favourite although I would probably have loved it back in 2012. But as an older, wiser old maid it feels over-powered by it's need to be 'indie'. But the premise is not wasted. Calvin is hardly a hero and Ruby is more than just a dream. Love isn't easy, it plays it hard and fast with no mercy. But that's where love becomes a unity, and this film feels like it's reminding us of that. No mater what we want to believe, the reality is actually better than the idea, if we give a chance.


It's time to set Rusty Flares aside.

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The American Classic Film style was a popular form of making films in the western world between the 1920’s to 1960’s. Often they could be melodramatic, theatrical even and tended to reflect on societies values of the time which, nearing the end of the era, were becoming outdated and unpopular. Remnants of this style are still present in cinema after, however films are now being made drawing inspiration from a variety of styles.

Screencap: The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz. US. 1938)

Style

They were often shot in high key lighting on sound stages. If there were any exterior shoots they would have been shot on the studio back lot. It was unusual for a film to travel far for shooting. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz, 1938) starring Erroll Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, recreated Saxon England and its wooded land on the Warner Bro.s California lot. It was similar to watching theatre and was shot with smooth camera movements which made it clear that the audience were watching a movie. Rarely, did they experiment with framing, resorting to simple set ups that audiences could follow. Alfred Hitchcock, who became one Hollywood’s greatest assets during the classic era, was an exception to this, having studied in Germany, developing a more obscure, expressionistic approach. This can be seen in films like Spellbound (1945), which he even called upon artist Salvador Dali to create the surreal dream sequence. This was subversive from the usual Hollywood style, and yet the film and narrative itself remain very much American Classic.


Scene Break Down: Gone with the Wind

Screencaps: Gone With the Wind (Fleming, 1939)

The scene plays out simply There are lot’s of tracking shots, dynamic movements that sweep with the characters and follow them and their actions. It is very similar to theatre; however, the camera changes angle when a new mood, tone or change of events take place. Like here when Rhett refuses to kiss Scarlett, she then turns from him bitterly. The camera dances around them. Prior to this scene, there are action-reaction shots but the framing is conventional.


Narrative Style

A three act structure, once again similar to the theatre and a format that has worked for hundreds of years, is common in American classic cinema and corresponds with Todorovs Narrative theory. The theory that all stories are technically made up of the same narrative that the equilibrium is in place, then it is unbalanced and eventually restored. It could be considered simple; but even in the 21st century it is a form that is repeatedly successful. The plot almost always unfolds in chronological order and any deviation from linearity tends to be in the form of an obvious flashback or dream. Furthermore, the characters are all there for a reason and every action progresses the story. There are no random appearances or surreal events like the sort that can be found in a David Lynch film. Everything in the story must have a purpose, and characters remain active and busy (Cook, 2007: p.45). Even in their musicals, the characters do not break out into random songs but instead tunes that reflect their feelings during the action or event or in the case of The Sound of Music (Wise, 1965), is actually part of the unfurling of events. To escape German occupied Austria, they must perform as the Von Trapp family at the music festival so as not to cause suspicion.

Screencap: The Sound of Music (Wise. US. 1965)

The narrative style reflects the capitalist society of the time and the messages that they wanted to convey as the characters continually have goals and are constantly doing something. American Classic film begun around the time of the Great Depression, and the American Dream was everyone’s greatest desire. Not only was cinema an escape, it had influence on society’s ideal of the dream. It fed on the government’s own propaganda to get everyone contributing to society whilst also promoting the idea that if you work hard, you can be on top of the world.


Narrative Elements and Values

The common elements, Heroes vs. Villains and good conquering all perhaps particularly reflect on society during this period and post war. Box office numbers began to decline in the fifties, however, during it peak, the working class were the most avid cinema goers as it was fairly cheap entertainment (Abrams, Bell & Urdis, J,2010: p.142) The war years inspired a need for fantasy and escape and a belief in Heroes. This style, perhaps, did so well for the forty odd years it did because it was considered an escape from the harshness of reality. The public were aware that real life was not like it, but to have their favourite stars act out their dreams was enough during the depression and war years. Morals were strong following the codes introduced in the early 30’s, the bad were punished and the good got all they wanted and more in the end. This was what audiences needed. A restoration of the equilibrium. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) is an optimistic attempt to inspire; its message that everybody’s life matters and influences countless others lives from day to day. Sometimes Hollywood even sway from original source material to avoid offending their conservative values and even to lighten the tone as A Street Car Named Desire (Kazan, 1952) did in attempt to ward off the strict censors.

Screencap: A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan. US. 1952)

Not all of the films had happy endings. Gone with the Wind (Fleming, 1939) for example, has perhaps one of the most tragic finales in film history. However, many believe Scarlett O’Hara gets her just desserts in the end even though she works incredibly hard for her family following the war. She is still punished for her selfish, not so honourable behaviour throughout the film. Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953), another classic romance ends with Gregory Pecks reporter, Joe Bradley, and Audrey Hepburn’s, Princess Ann, parting at the end. At the time, maybe duty was considered more important. It is a story that is repeatedly referenced, with 1994’s, Only You (Jewison, 1994) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei, shaping its plot around it.

Screencap: Roman Holiday (Wyler. US. 1953)

Production

The American Classic style particularly thrived during the peak of the Hollywood Studio System, when top companies such as Warner Bros, MGM and Universal would run film production like a factory. Stars were contracted to particular studios and loaned out to other companies at high price, or when the actor or actress had not behaved ‘correctly’. For example, Clark Gable was signed with MGM, but following a broken contract with them as punishment he was loaned to Columbia where he worked with Frank Capra, acting opposite Claudette Colbert to make the 1935 romantic Comedy It Happened One Night (Bilbow & Gau, 1995: p.139). To the two stars surprise, it was a success and actually paved the way for the Romantic Comedy genre.

Directors initially had no creative control, producers had the last say and films were being made at rapid pace. Many did not approach filmmaking as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles or Frank Capra did who left their mark and developed new methods in storytelling such as Welles deep-focus shot in Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) and Hitchcock’s Trombone shot initially used in Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958). These are the most notable auteurs of the American Classic era along with Billy Wilder, who directed and wrote Some Like it Hot (1959), Howard Hawks, who made Rio Bravo (1959) and Bringing up Baby (1938) and John Ford, the iconic director of Westerns, the maker Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and who often worked with the actor John Wayne.

Screencap: It Happened One Night (Capra. US. 1935)

Emotive musical scores were popularly used during this time that fed the emotions into a scene and up until the past few years, has been common in larger productions. The musicals like West Side story (Wise, 1961) and The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939), the Epics like Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur (Wyler, 1959) and Westerns like The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960) were full of iconic music and sweeping scores. On some occasions, the music has become more notable than the film; the constant referencing to classic cinema across media has ingrained the films into pop culture.


The end of the American Classic

In later years, they became more self-aware and were playful with the classic tropes or vicious with their criticisms of the Hollywood system. In later years, they would tackle bigger issues, such as racism in To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962), In the Heat of the Night (Jewison, 1967) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Kramer, 1967), the latter two starring one of Hollywood’s first Black leading men, Sidney Poitier. Also, ideologies began to change and some films reflected this and took advantage of the lax of the code that for years had permitted filmmakers from exploring certain subjects. Mike Nichols 1966 adaptation of Edward Albees play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shocked viewers with its coarse language and frank sexual references; never had a such things been seen on the big screen.

Screencap: To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan. US. 1962)

By the 1960’s, box office figures were dropping dramatically and attitudes were changing. Protests against the Vietnam War, against the government and for civil rights were happening across the US. Realism and rebellion were what people looked for in cinema. As society became more pessimistic and the typical social constructs were stripped back, the old Hollywood messages were fast becoming irrelevant to younger generations. Foreign cinema, such as French New-Wave, were simply more relatable to the youths and the introduction of colour televisions to households changed the entertainment in the western world. It became harder to stick to the American classic style, and by the mid-60’s more foreign films were being released in America more than American productions, including British cinema such as A Hard Day’s Night (Lester, 1964) and Alfie (Gilbert, 1966). The American Classic has paved the way for film; it still influences key directors in this century whilst also being lovingly recycled for modern audiences.

Screencap: The Quiet Man (Ford. US. 1952)

References

ABRAMS, N. BELL, I. & URDIS, J. (2010) Studying Film. Second Edition. London: Bloomsbury Academic

BILBOW, T. & GAU, J. (1995) Lights, Camera, Action: A Century of Cinema. First Edition. London: Little, Brown and company

COOK, P. (ed.) (2007) The Cinema Book. Third Edition. London: BFI. Palgrave Macmillan

Screencaps

Gone with the Wind. (1939) Film. Directed by Victor Fleming. [DVD]. US: Warner Bros

The Adventures of Robin Hood. (1938) Film. Directed by Michael Curtiz. [DVD]. US: Warner Bros.

The Sound of Music. (1965) Film. Directed by Robert Wise. [DVD]. US: Twentieth Century Fox

A Streetcar Named Desire. (1952). Film. Directed by Elia Kazan. [DVD]. US: Warner Bros.

Roman Holiday. (1953). Film. Directed by William Wyler. [DVD]. US: Paramount

It Happened One Night. (1935). Film. Directed by Frank Capra. [DVD]. US: Columbia

The Quiet Man (1952). Film. Directed by John Ford. [DVD]. US: Paramount

To Kill a Mockingbird. (1962). Film. Directed by Robert Mulligan. [DVD]. US: Universal Pictures.


(Originally Composed 13/12/16 for a project on Film styles)

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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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