Tag Archives: rian johnson

Tom Shepherd on ‘Noir in Brick’, a video essay


Creator’s Statement:


The process of the video essay began with the film review for Rian Johnson’s film noir, Brick and was then furthered in the consecutive essay. The review attempted to convey the tones and narrative of the feature while bringing attention to various filmic elements such as cinematography and mise-en-scène. The essay builds upon this foundational text and conclusions on the main points of subjectivity and guilt take root. Despite, being devoid of literary sources, a fact rectified in the video essays development, the essay’s focus on the film allowed crucial understanding of Brick’s tactics and meanings. Moreover, the inclusion of close analysis marked the beginning of the structure to be seen within the final video essay itself as well as the identification of key elements such as music which go onto frame later arguments.


The video essay, as a combination of these past two texts with theory and close analysis to the film, attempts to convey the ways in which Johnson uses the genre of noir with the high school setting. Key to this is the way in which he utilises the idea of two worlds; the first being the surface banality of the ‘ordinary’ high school, and the second, highly stylised world of the noir. Assigned to these respective worlds are Brendan’s relationship with Emily, which uses the authentic tone of reality to garner empathy from the viewer, and ideas of immorality and crime. The video essay shows how Johnson uses conventions of the genre and camerawork to express Brendan’s feelings of guilt which allows the viewer to track the submeaning of his quest to “find the one who put her on the spot”, which, in this reading of the film, is Brendan himself.

The structure of the essay frames the points most important to the argument while allowing flow through film. Unlike words which have no corresponding signifiers, the video essay required words to be constructed around the visuals of the film. The introduction simply eases the viewer into the film, clarifying the features main ideas, styles and goals of the director. James Naremore’s summary of the iconography and devices of noir furthers the viewers knowledge as the essay mirrors examples on screen. A quote from ‘A Companion to Film Noir’ presents another side of the discourse on what noir is by noting the entity’s abstract nature that exists more in the discussion that in physical properties. The sequential opening analysis introduces the primary idea of the camera’s alignment to Brendan’s subjectivity while framing the secondary ‘noir world’ as the evil that killed Emily. The essay moves on to the idea of complementary worlds, something that was included to further Naremore’s examples, address reviews and to bring the argument neatly onto the topic of the Pin. Furthermore, an insert of a quote by Raymond Chandler, whose books massively influenced the noir genre, works nicely with Roger Ebert’s review of Brick as it displays how the tone has shifted from the urban city of the 40s, to a high school. The importance of addressing these reviews stems from the essay’s argument that Johnson is attempting to use the noir genre to his own ends, whereas the reviews allude to the notion that it is for that sake of gimmick and parody. The pin’s character, while not entirely to blame for Emily’s murder, comes to symbolise the noir world that certainly did play a part in said crime. As the part of the narrative concerned with the Pin climaxes, the noir style similarly increases, with a focus on the lighting in, and around the pin’s house. The essay uses this part in its narrative to again reinforce the ideas and effects of alignment within the film as well as Johnson’s use of it. Moreover, the character of the Pin takes the viewer to an example of Johnson’s portrayal of the idea that there are two worlds within Brick by showing the camera’s cut from the dark and stylised lighting of the basement to the light, playful setting of the kitchen with its entailing banality. Finishing the segment with a point on its world-oriented dialogue style, the essay begins upon the topic of lines and edges as an expansion on the idea of two worlds. The text, detailing the music used within the current point, is manipulated on the screen to exemplify the lines of which the narrator discusses. Shifting the essay’s focus from Brendan to Emily, the question of where does Emily belong in this system of worlds is brought to the foreground by the narrator. In this portion of the essay, the essay brings a focus to the main reason as to why a noir was set in a high school which was to utilise the familiar setting’s reserve of easily accessible empathy. While referencing, Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon, the principle is displayed through the comparison in plots; rather than a political scheme or a jewelled bird, Brick’s focus is on the relationship between two schoolmates, something most people can relate to, and empathise with. The pronouncement of this empathy is then developed in the essay with the idea of guilt which is brought to the forefront through the analysis of Dode’s murder and the flashback. The quote by Paul Schrader is inserted here to strengthen the concept of Johnson’s manipulation of genre convention to the effect of generating emotion on and off the screen. The perspective of guilt is guided by the essay to its end with a summary of the place of the football pitch as a site that tracks Brendan’s story. The match shots that came before refresh the audience of his feelings of guilt. The final turn from Brendan conveys his acknowledgment of his complicity in Emily’s tragedy.


Rian Johnson, Brick, Bergman Lustig Productions, 2005.

Roman Polanski, Chinatown, Paramount Pictures, 1974.

John Huston, The Maltese Falcon, Warner Brothers Pictures (1941)


Schrader, Paul. Notes on Film Noir. Film Comment, vol. 8, no. 1, 1972.

Spicer, Andre, and Helen Hanson. A Companion to Film Noir, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2013.

Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2nd edn, 2008.


Eavesdropping at the Movies: 380 – Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

There’s an unwelcome element of particularly American and ill-fitting barbarism in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a film that we hoped would be cleverer and more charming than it is. It’s also more of a straightforward thriller than a whodunnit, with one particular alteration to the murder mystery formula meaning that so much is kept from the audience that it stops being fun to play along. There’s still enough here to enjoy, but we’d like the third film to be more like the first, please.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies:203 – Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

(Our two-part discussion on the previous Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, is available here and here.)

The Star Wars saga ends – for the third time – with The Rise of Skywalker, a return to J. J. Abrams’ whimsical ways, following Rian Johnson’s creative and dramatic work in The Last Jedi. Disney and Abrams have clearly taken the vocal response of the franchise’s self-appointed guardians seriously, overwriting everything we liked about Johnson’s film, offering us mild, defanged plot developments and characterisations, but once we accept that, we find a lot of fun in this closing chapter’s sense of adventure and melodrama.

It’s clear from five minutes in, having been told three times that Rey’s parents, revealed to be nobodies in The Last Jedi, are actually hiding a secret that makes them very important indeed, that The Rise of Skywalker intends to do away with everything that made the last film so interesting and challenging. It’s a disappointment, but in declaring its intention to simply continue the soap opera and gallivant around the galaxy, the film needs to at least do a good job of that. And it does, José remarking upon how pleasurable it is to see a film of such high production values, and Mike finding that Abrams manages here to really capture the adventurous spirit of the original trilogy that he succeeded only in imitating in The Force Awakens, those core ideas of quests and gangs and brand new planets all working smoothly here. It’s an arguably surprisingly beautiful film too, light and dark dramatically interacting in geometrically precise shots that emphasise scale and power. And that melodrama between Kylo and Rey that we so loved in The Last Jedi, returns and develops here, the bond between them creating shared, tangible, intimate spaces just for them.

On the negative side, not only does the sense of corporate damage control never go away in the film’s refusal to make anything of The Last Jedi‘s developments, but weak, insulting attempts at inclusivity and representation also rankle, a gay kiss especially conspicuous for just how momentary it is, a shot of two extras crudely implanted within the film’s celebratory denouement simply drawing attention to its own tokenism. José suggests that the return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando is a similarly insincere and lazy effort at racial representation, as his is a minor character in the original trilogy, undemanding of the send-off given here to Luke, Leia and Han, but as the only non-white character in Star Wars of any significance whatsoever, he’s brought along for the ride. And underneath it all, a real character, a big part of the gang in Episodes VII and VIII, Rose, has her role reduced to almost nothing here, an obvious response to the truly vile behaviour of the fans towards actor Kelly Marie Tran.

It’s a mixed bag overall, a film to watch with one eye earnest and one cynical, but we’re thrilled with its action, adventure and spectacle, and its central melodrama is evocative and rewarding. A good conclusion to the saga… until Episode XII, of course.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.


Eavesdropping at the Movies: 196 – Knives Out

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s playful, knockabout whodunnit Knives Out has been receiving praise for its screenplay that we feel isn’t quite warranted, and isn’t much to look at either – but it’s a lark, and one that carries some unexpected sociopolitical commentary. José argues that Johnson doesn’t learn enough from the films upon which his pastiche is based, making too little of both the wonderful cast he’s assembled and the wonderful sets he’s had assembled for him, though the film isn’t devoid of flair or structural neatness. Mike was with the film more or less all the way, though suggests that it won’t play as well in the distracted environment of the home, the minutiae of the countless plot details easy to lose track of as one tries to make sense of them. So it’s worth a watch, but it’s neither as elegant nor as charming as we’d like.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies 26 – Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

the last jedi.jpg


I loved looking at it. I loved the action. I loved the world it created. I loved Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro in it. Adam Driver is filmed as a Byronic hero, anguishingly romantic and at his sexiest. It’s my favourite film in the series, including Star Wars V — The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Mike felt differently. Matt Moore, also a bit lukewarmish about the film as a whole, joins us for this discussion and points to how the film focusses on female characters and interestingly alters the focus of the series.

We discuss how the film represents a shift from an aristocratic focus on blood and destiny to a more democratic purview on social change everyone, of whatever class, race or ethnicity can engage in. Mike came out of the film gleefully playing with a light-sabre only to sit down and slash through what he saw as the film’s weaker points, though he also points out how he believes Rian Johnson is the right director for the film and how, in spite of its faults, it truly does feel like a Star Wars film. Lots of spoilers.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link


Matt Moore, José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film


Recorded on 17th December 2017.

Looper (Rian Johnson, USA, 2012)


Visually disappointing but narratively enthralling film about a Looper, an executioner who kills people from the future in the present. Time travel doesn’t exist in the present but it does in the future, thus people from the future get shipped back to the film’s present, the looper shoots them as they appear, disposes of the body and gets paid. No one is looking for the bodies in the present and nobody can find them in the future. But who is disposing of these bodies and why? That’s what the rest of the story tries to tell in this dystopian futuristic thriller in which one can detect elements of The Omen (Richard Donner, USA, 1976) and The Fury (Brian de Palman, USA, 1978). The story lacks tension and feels a bit long but it does fascinate. The drugs, the want, the sense of a failed state with no law and order, with hungry people rummaging the countryside and those prairies full of rotting fields are a subtle critique of America now and, like many contemporary films, Looper deals with current anxieties by depicting, denouncing and somewhat resolving the most hateful aspects of this new Depression we’re living in, albeit tangentially. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a subtle imitation of a young Bruce Willis, it’s mostly the nose, but with a few mannerisms thrown in; then he shows what a truly brilliant actor he is because he can let go of the disguise; it’s not straightforward imitation. Emily Blunt disappoints; sadly, because she’s so sympathetic one wants her to be good. Looper is intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that offers well-executed action and also leaves audiences with an interesting set of ideas to think about and discuss.

José Arroyo