8 Mile: A Study of Hip-Hop Culture


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This is an essay that analyzes the film 8 Mile and how it depicts and challenges the culture of Hip-Hop.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

(sorry in advance for some inconsistency in the essay’s formatting in the lyric segements – WordPress is giving me some problems)

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Music is not isolated to a vinyl pressing, compact disc, or audio file. It is a versatile art form – a statement I realized while studying media, in and out of school.

Cinema is a passion of mine to study, produce and enjoy. Most of all, it is a medium that can utilize music while also define a music genre. Music is another passion of mine and I am fortunate that both mediums are unifying art-forms. For instance, some of my most favored films are illustrations of a musical time period and define its depicted music genre. They also confront and demonstrate issues around the given culture. To name a few, Almost Famous: Rock and Roll in the 1970’s, Walk the Line: Johnny Cash and Country music, A Hard Day’s Night: The Beatles and the British Invasion and finally, the focus of my essay –

8 Mile: A Study of Hip-Hop Culture 

Of the numerous films made about the four-decade long Hip-Hop culture, Curtis Hanson’s 2002 film 8 Mile featuring Eminem and his semi-autobiographical story is among the most successful. It frequently makes the list of “best hip-hop movies” (Ramirez, 1) and is an example of commercial success meeting artistic achievement. While the film grossed 240 million at the box office (Box Office Mojo), it was acclaimed by film critics and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, part of the 8 Mile’s thematic score, was rewarded an Academy Award for Best Original Song (the first Hip-Hop artist to do so). However, a “two-thumbs up” from famed critic Roger Ebert and a golden statue is not my criteria for artist achievement.

My film analysis will accompany the cultural theories of Hip-Hop by theorist Murray Forman in “The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip Hop” and Jeffery O.G Ogbar in “Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap”. Major elements of this analysis will include the role of the MC and Race, Space and Place in Hip-Hop culture which Forman discusses and is demonstrated by director Curtis Hanson in 8 Mile. The film is set during the backdrop of underground rap battles in Detroit where MC’s use words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95). The writing, locations and performances of the battles relate to the artist’s life and surroundings, or as Forman suggests, “space and place”.

Race is also part of the narrative. In the film, main character B-Rabbit (Eminem) struggles to make an impact as a Hip-Hop artist in the Black community of Detroit. This racial element is explored throughout the film, and especially summed in a discussion between B-Rabbit and his entourage of close friends: DJ IZ tells B-Rabbit, “There’s always room for a White man in a Black man’s world”.

My analysis of 8 Mile will be an example of why the film is an artistic achievement as it relates to the large culture of Hip-Hop as theorized by author Murray Forman and Jeffery O.G Ogbar. There are different approaches to writing about a film and I will use a critical essay methodology (Corrigan, 12). With this method in practice, I presume that the reader will be familiar with 8 Mile as I analyze its components, such as setting, character and language, in relation to Hip-Hop culture.

8 Mile is a semi-autobiographical account of Eminem, therefore a 1995 Detroit setting is appropriate. Eminem grew as a person and rapper in this time and place which is a reflection of B-Rabbit, the main character of the film. Setting is an important element in film language to help convey the theme, build an atmosphere and make the film believable. Detroit was a motivated setting to associate music and race as depicted in 8 Mile. 

As represented in the film, the Hip-Hop culture in Detroit is one that depicts a division of race and social class. However, Detroit is not only an important city for Hip-Hop as author Chris Quispel titles the city with Detroit: City of Cars, City of Music. This is a title the author relates to the rise of Motown Records in the 1960’s and 1970, a time period that also reflects social and racial division with music as it did with Hip-Hop. Motown was one of the most important Black record labels in the United States and “Although almost everybody involved with the Motown label was Black, the music was successfully aimed at both a Black and White audience – this despite the volatile and hostile racial relations in Detroit” (Quispel, 226).

The hostile racial relations that Quispel examines is an issue that reached its climax in the summer of 1943 when the race riot occurred. Fights between young Blacks and Whites erupted and fought for several days. “34 people were killed, 25 of them Black, 675 were seriously injured and 1,893 people were arrested” (Quispel, 229) and this riot was a result of the growing competition between Blacks and Whites, a relationship that audiences witness in 8 Mile. 

The depiction of Detroit’s racial and social relations in the film is already referenced in the title 8 Mile. The film’s title refers to 8 Mile Road in Detroit, a border in between 7 Mile Road, the Black neighborhood, and 9 Mile Road, the White neighborhood. Its division is physical and metaphorical as it separates two different cultures and communities (Esling, ch.8, location 1553). In the film, we see the difference between the White and Black neighborhood. When B-Rabbit and his entourage visit their friend Cheddar-Bob after his accident, they are in a White neighborhood. Director Curtis Hanson paces the scene in comparison to the neighborhood itself – slow, mundane and it lasts a striking two minutes compared to the rest of the film where it mostly takes place in a fast and eventful Black neighborhood with Hip-Hop clubs such as The Shelter, the streets and Detroit Stamping. The 8 Mile Road division in this instance can also be an indication between reality and aspiration. B-Rabbit, if unsuccessful in his career, may lead a mundane life but he aspires to become part of the Hip-Hop scene in 7 Mile Road and beyond.


While B-Rabbit spends most of his days in the Black neighborhood, he finds inspiration in the streets, at his job in Detroit Stamping and The Shelter. He rides the “8 Mile” bus to work and gazes out the window as the gritty streets of Detroit pass by. The character looks over at a liquor store, a gun range and a golf club – they are run-down with low maintenance which displays the area’s poverty. B-Rabbit then writes lyrics on a sheet of paper (that is old and mostly filled, showing that he is inspired and writes frequently) over the beats on his walkman. As Nas used the scenes in Queensbridge to inspire the artist’s masterful Illmatic (XXL Staff), B-Rabbit uses the Detroit scene to inspire his writing. The lyrics written in this scene eventually become a song titled “8 Mile” by Eminem on the film’s soundtrack, named after B-Rabbit’s bus. Segments of these lyrics display the character’s frustration of living in Detroit:

I just can’t do it, my whole manhood’s

just been stripped, I have just been vicked

So I must then get off the bus then split

Man fuck this shit yo, I’m going the fuck home

World on my shoulders as I run back to this 8 Mile Road

Detroit crime is also an aspect of the film. At one point, it introduces a murder and rape crime towards a young girl. Eventually, B-Rabbit and his entourage burn down the house where it took place which serves as another inspiring event to the rapper’s lyrics. As he works at the Detroit Stamping factory (another setting of inspiration), he sings:

Alex Latourno, Hotter than an inferno

Hotter than a crack house

Burn internal

He combines events of the night before: the start of his love interest with Alex Latourno and the burning of a crime scene.


B-Rabbit writes from personal experience which is the reality of Hip-Hop artists like, as mentioned earlier, Nas and his album Illmatic. This idea relates to an important theoretical outlook on Hip-Hop from Murray Forman’s book on the importance of space and race in the Hip-Hop narrative. Spaces, such as the city or the ghetto, can influence the music and the stories being told through the lyrics (Forman, 88) as the streets of Detroit inspire B-Rabbit’s narrative lyrics. With the help of Communications theorist Michel de Certeau, Murray Forman expresses the use of narrative in Hip-Hop as it is an important cultural element that offers insight on space. In Hip-Hop, the MC uses words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95).

Director Curtis Hanson depicts settings in 8 Mile with such grit and realism that B-Rabbit’s inspiration with Detroit is motivated and justified. Cinematically, this is accomplished by shooting on location while capturing the film with handheld and dark-toned cinematography. It offers a distinct parallel with the characters that inhabit the locations. Not only do the settings reflect the characters, but it reflects Hip-Hop culture as well with its use of The Shelter, a Detroit Hip-Hop club. Again, the director uses a real location to heighten the film’s authenticity. The Shelter, as described by author Jordan Ferguson, was a venue for people to showcase their talent (Ferguson 18). The main attractions were the “open mic battles that took place on Saturdays between  5:00 and 7:00 p.m. The Saturday battles and the shop as a whole became a mandatory destination for Hip-Hop heads, a space wholly dedicated to the love and appreciation of the music and the culture, and a place for the city’s growing crew of artists to network and collaborate” (Ferguson 10). In relation to 8 Mile, the venue represents the struggles of a White man trying to become successful in a Black setting. The film’s sequences at The Shelter are examples of Curtis Hanson’s use of character and language in relation to Hip-Hop culture. I will examine B-Rabbit’s struggle in a racial setting from rap battle lyrics heard at the venue.

The Shelter is part of the first scene in the film as B-Rabbit prepares in the venue’s bathroom for a rap battle. The scene cuts to a battle on stage, showing a Black rapper vs another in front of a predominantly Black audience. Future, B-Rabbit’s friend and host of the rap battles, escorts B-Rabbit to the stage. He and his African-American opponent Lil’ Tic are ready to battle. Lil’ Tic starts first and what follows are important excerpts from his battle:

I’mma murder this man!
He’s the type to lose a fight with a dyke
They don’t laugh cause you’re whack, they laugh cause you’re white with a mic
You a wigger that invented rhymes for money
My paws love to maul an MC
Cause he’s faker than a psychic with caller ID
So that bullshit, save it for storage
Cause this is hip hop, you don’t belong you’re a tourist
So put ya hockey stick and baseball bat away
Cause this here Detroit, 16 Mile road thataway, thataway

Examining these lyrics, Lil’ Tic incorporates racial comments as he takes advantage of B-Rabbit’s isolation in their Black community. This is evident in the battle’s opening line, “They don’t laugh cause you’re whack, they laugh cause you’re white with a mic”. Shortly after, Lil’ Tic uses the term “wigger”. This is a slang term that is defined as a White person that tries to act Black. He accuses B-Rabbit of being a rapper with no passion that writes meaningless rhymes just to make money, which Lil’ Tic follows up and calls it “bullshit” material (Black Papillon, 1).

Hip-Hop is known as being an African-American genre. Hip-Hop theorist Jeffery O.G Ogbar supports this claim by acknowledging that Hip-Hop was born from the expressive culture of the African-American’s. For example, Ogbar explains that the core of Hip-Hop was influenced by African-American pop culture such as James Brown and his dance moves influencing breaking dancing (Ogbar 12). Therefore, as Imani Perry is quoted by Ogbar, “Hip-Hop music is black American music” (Ogbar 12). This is why Lil’ Tic refers to B-Rabbit as a tourist – “Cause this is hip hop, you don’t belong you’re a tourist”. It is similar to saying, “This is 9 Mile Road [the Black community] and you don’t belong [because you’re not like us]”. He concludes his racial attacks by referencing sports ideally played by Whites and tells B-Rabbit to leave town.


B-Rabbit is stunned and faces a heckling crowd. They laugh in face and yell, “Choke!”. B-Rabbit does not say a word and hands the mic to Future. This withdrawal and defeat reflects the real life struggle Eminem went through while growing up in Detroit. As author Isabelle Esling writes, “During the time Marshall Mathers [Eminem] settled in Detroit, racial tensions divided both Black and White communities. A White kid wanted to rap faced a real challenge. Eminem’s road to success was far from easy. It required a lot of determination and drive” (Esling, ch.8, location 41).

By the end of the film, B-Rabbit returns to The Shelter for a second chance to battle the film’s antagonist Papa Doc and his crew, Leaders of the Free World. Again, B-Rabbit is caught receiving racial insults:

Fuckin Nazi, this crowd ain’t your type

Take some real advice and form a group with Vanilla Ice

And what I tell you, you better use it

This guy’s a hillbilly, this ain’t Willie Nelson music

Ill crack your shoulder blade

You’ll get dropped so hard

Elvis will start turnin in his grave

I feel bad I gotta murder that dude from “Leave It To Beaver”

The lyrics use similar themes of race as the beginning of the film. The rappers scrutinize B-Rabbit for not being part of their crowd and compare him to White artists (Vanilla Ice, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley). However, B-Rabbit retaliates with rhymes and lyrics that wins the crowd’s attention and offers an insight on MC’s and freestyle in Hip-Hop. Freestyle competitions, by this time, have become a complex art form with more sophisticated rhythms. While an insult needs to be clever and insulting, freestyling rhymes must be “dope” in order to be accepted by a Hip-Hop audience (Pihel 253). B-Rabbit’s winning freestyle battle was against Papa Doc and not only did he insult him, but B-Rabbit rapped about his own life. Again, as Murray Forman explains, space is a big factor in Hip-Hop. Space inspires an MC to tell stories that are true and authentic, resulting in a strong connection with an MC’s audience (Forman 95). B-Rabbit also puts Murray Forman’s perspective into his insults towards Papa Doc:

I know something about you

You went to Cranbrook, that’s a private school

What’s the matter dawg? You embarrassed?

This guy’s a gangster? he’s real name’s Clarence

And Clarence lives at home with both parents

And Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage

This guy don’t wanna battle, He’s shook

‘Cause there no such things as half-way crooks

He’s scared to death

He’s scared to look in his fucking yearbook, fuck Cranbrook


An MC moves an audience with words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95) and their artistic success credibility resides in their class and/or race relation (Hodgman 402). B-Rabbit is an example of class-based authenticity. He lives in a trailer with his single mother with financial issues and struggles to achieve his dreams while working at a factory. He removes Papa Doc of all credibility. He takes pride in exposing Papa Doc’s background who was supposedly a more authentic rapper than B-Rabbit solely because of his Black background. Papa Doc is speechless and B-Rabbit proves his authenticity – something he was criticized for solely based on his racial status.

B-Rabbit is now an accepted Hip-Hop figure in Detroit and will presumably become a popular one since the character is a reflection of Eminem. Because of this acceptance and popularity in Hip-Hop, author Scott F. Parker examines Eminem (and B-Rabbit) in comparison to Elvis Presley. Parker states that Eminem is the “Elvis of Rap” because he is a White man who “makes Black music credibly, creatively and compellingly” (Parker, ch.1, location 531). Eminem produces music that theorist Jefferey O.G Ogbar associates with African-Americans (Ogbar 12) and Elvis Presley became popular with R&B, another predominately Black world.

As Elvis did with R&B, B-Rabbit in 8 Mile challenges the racial ideologies of Hip-Hop which was made possible by the character’s authenticity and talent as an MC. With Murray Forman’s and Jeffery O.G Ogbar’s theories of Hip-Hop, I analyzed how the appropriate Detroit setting reflects B-Rabbit’s racial discrimination in a Hip-Hop culture that is predominantly African-American. B-Rabbit uses his environment to write and tell compelling stories through rhyme that moves an audience and proves his role as an MC. He won the Black audience over, similar to how Eminem (a reflection of the 8 Mile character) gained respect from his audience. Talib Kweli, for instance, is an American Hip-Hop artist from New York City. Kweli’s origins and race are authentic in reference to Jefferey O.G Ogbar’s Hip-Hop discussion: Hip-Hop was born from the expressive culture of the African-American’s with the children of New York City being the creators of the art (Ogbar, 12). Talib Kweli first witnessed Eminem battle in New York City and reminisces:

“I saw Eminem get dissed badly over and over again, mostly for being White, and then come back and obliterate his competition with the next rhyme. He did it every time. There were a few on his level, but nobody better” (Parker, forward, location 47).

This relates to B-Rabbit’s achievement in 8 Mile, a film that defines the Hip-Hop culture while challenging its ideologies. Going back to the discussion between B-Rabbit and his entourage of close friends, DJ IZ tells B-Rabbit, “There’s always room for a White man in a Black man’s world”. By the end of 8 Mile, DJ IZ’s opinion is realized.


Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. New York: Longman, 1998. Print.

Esling, Isabelle. Eminem and the Detroit Rap Scene: White Kid in a Black Music World. Phoenix, AZ: Colossus, 2012. Kindle ebook file.

Ferguson, Jordan. Donuts. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Print.

Forman, Murray. The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip Hop. (Middle, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2002). pp. 88-95.

Hodgman, Matthew R. “Class, Race, Credibility, and Authenticity within the Hip-Hop Music Genre”. Journal of Sociological Research. Vol. 4, No.2. pp. 402.

Ogbar, Jeffery O.G., Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 2007). p.p. 12

Parker, Scott F. Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race: Essays. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014. Kindle ebook file.

Pihel, Erik. “A Furified Freestyle: Homer and Hip Hop”. Oral Tradition, 11/2 (1996): 249-269.

Quispel, Chris. “Detroit, City of Cars, City of Music”. Built Environment (1978-), Vol. 31, No. 3, Music and the City (2005), pp. 226-236.

Digital Bibliography

8 Mile. Dir. Curtis Hanson. Universal Pictures. 2002.

“8 Mile (2002) – Box Office Mojo.” 8 Mile (2002) – Box Office Mojo. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

A Hard Day’s Night. Dir. Richard Lester. United Artists. 1964.

Almost Famous. Dir. Cameron Crowe. Dreamworks Pictures. 2000.

Black Papillon. “Lil’ Tic Disses Rabbit”. Genius. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Ramirez, Erika (November 8, 2012). “Top 10 Best Hip-Hop Movies Ever”. Billboard. Prometheus Global Media. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Walk the Line. Dir. James Mangold. 20th Century Fox. 2005.

XXL Staff. “Nas Says New York City Wrote Illmatic”. Theneeds.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.


8 Mile. Dir. Curtis Hanson. Universal Pictures. 2002.


Nas’ “Illmatic”


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This is an essay examining the work of Hip-Hop artist Nas and his album Illmatic. While this seems unrelated to cinema, Hip-Hop is a culture that has been disseminated through film (such as 8 Mile, a film I also wrote an essay on which is posted right above this one!) 

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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At first glance, Illmatic by Nas features cover artwork of an African-American child juxtaposed with a photograph of a street-block. The child is Nas himself, or more appropriately, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, at age seven (Cowie, 2) and behind the young boy is a gritty New York City block (Juon, 1). The significance of the photograph, especially at this early age, is explained by Nas in an interview with MTV:

[The picture on my album cover] is me when I was 7 years old. That was the year I started to acknowledge everything [around me]. That’s the year everything set off. That’s the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right. The ghetto makes you think. The world is ours. I used to think I couldn’t leave my projects. I used to think if I left, if anything happened to me, I thought it would be no justice or I would be just a dead slave or something. The projects used to be my world until I educated myself to see there’s more out there.

Furthermore, as author Michael Eric Dyson explains in “Rebel In America” Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic, the Queensbridge imagery transforms Illmatic into “a sonic map”. This is significant because it is the location of Nas’s inspiration for the album’s concept: stories based on his experiences of growing up in the Queensbridge projects. While the entire album is significant to the artist’s intent, three songs will be the focus of my Illmatic analysis: “N.Y. State of Mind”, “Halftime” and “One Love”. The lyrics will be the primary concern as the old-school-inspired beats serve as a proper accompaniment to Nas’s masterful storytelling and delivery.

The following analysis will structured by highlighting lyrics that are significant to the overall meaning of the song and album with theoretical studies in Hip-Hop culture by authors Murray Forman, Jeffery O.G. Ogbar and M.K. Asante Jr.

N.Y. State of Mind

“I don’t know how to start this shit, yo” are Nas’s last words before the verse and while it may seem simple and improvised, it proves to be important for the tone for the entire album. The line prepares the listener for an authentic listening experience and Nas is still using the lyric in his live performances for the same reason. The following two versus describe the dangerous environment that surrounded him in the city and his rapping capabilities with lines such as, “Rappers I monkey flip em with the funky rhythm I be kickin / Musician, inflictin composition / of pain I’m like Scarface sniffin cocaine” and “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death / Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined / I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”. Nas reveals the dark side of New York City which is a different outlook on the city compared to “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra or the recent “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z that highlight the mainstream and glamourous ideals of the Big Apple. Nas explains that he is only reminded of the crime when thinking about the city, and in hindsight, he states, “New York City wrote Illmatic” (XXL Staff). This relates to author Murray Foreman’s book on the importance of space and race in the Hip-Hop narrative. Spaces, such as the city or the ghetto, can influence the music and the stories being told through the lyrics (Foreman, 8). Author Jeffery O.G Ogbar also acknowledges that Hip-Hop was born from the expressive culture of the African-American’s with the children of New York City being the creators of the art (Ogbar, 12) – a culture and place that Nas is associated with.


Halftime” features a critique on society where, “Nas performs the most critical function of the public intellectual: linking a rigorous engagement with the life of the mind to an equally rigorous engagement with the public and its problems” (Hill, 1). A major problem that Nas expresses in “Halftime” is the discrimination that he witnessed from the police, or the “5-0” as he refers to them. Nas describes them as “heartless” because when “narcs” raid a house, it is usually late at night or early in the morning to catch people by surprise – a heartless tactic (Devito, 1). The artist addresses discrimination towards African-Americans by writing about how his race are criminals to the eyes of the police. This is evident in the line “I wear chains that excite the Feds” meaning that when Federal Agents see his overly-expensive chains he wears, they think that they were obtained illegally. Besides personal experience, Nas also incorporates political discussion by alluding to events ranging from the days of slavery (“I rap in front of more niggas than in the slave ships”) to the recent 1992 riot in Washington Heights, NY (Finder, 1) where Jose Garcia was shot by the police (“And yo, go to hell to the foul cop who shot Garcia”). Nas directs our attention to this prejudice – but where does it come from? Author M. K. Asaute Jr. suggests that the representation of Blacks in the media has an impact on the matter such as media that are “produced by whites and for whites to justify Blacks’ oppression, images of savages, of laziness, of pimpism and gangsterism” (Asaute Jr, 21). Ideally, the police are suppose to protect, though they combine their high authority and prejudice to act violently and unfairly towards others. Along with his personal experiences, Nas’s references to important examples in the history of racial discrimination, including Malcolm X, display the artist’s high intelligence, which is displayed with a creative flare in “One Love”.

One Love 

The narratives and social issues inspired by Nas’s upbringing in New York is well executed due to Nas’s skillful storytelling ability. “One Love” is an example of the artist’s talent. Knowing Nas’s background, this is not a surprise. He started writing rhymes at nine-years-old and has been dedicated to writing music for his brothers who cannot voice their feelings (MTV, 1). Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson can also testify to Nas’ intelligence. In an interview with XXL magazine, Jackson states, “Nas is a really smart guy. He reads books constantly. We were around him on the Nastradamus tour. He was almost weirder than me ’cause we would go to breakfast and he’d be there reading a book” (Robbins, 1). As many say, creativity can spawn from reading and what makes “One Love” interesting is the artist’s literary imagination by writing the song in the form of a letter. At the time, Nas had a friend in jail which inspired this writing decision. As author Adam Bradley states in Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop:

Nas is perhaps contemporary rap’s greatest innovator in storytelling. His catalog includes songs narrated before birth (‘Fetus’) and after death (‘Amongst Kings’), biographies (‘UBR [Unauthorized Biography of Rakim]’) and autobiographies (‘Doo Rags’), allegorical tales (‘Money Is My Bitch’) and epistolary ones (‘One Love’), he’s rapped in the voice of a woman (‘Sekou Story’) and even of a gun (‘I Gave You Power’) (Bradley, 173).

With the help of Communications theorist Michel de Certeau, Murray Forman expresses the use of narrative in Hip-Hop as it is an important cultural element that offers insight on space. In Hip-Hop, the MC uses words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95) as Nas does in “One Love” and the rest of Illmatic. The range of styles and form as seen in “One Love” demonstrates great narrative qualities from the artist and allows the audience to comprehend the space of Nas’s past more fully.

From the first glance at Illmatic’s album artwork to the last word sung in “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, Nas offers a glimpse into his experiences growing up in Queensbridge that raises social issues about city crime and racial discrimination from higher authority. Furthermore, the artist’s lyrics offer an appropriate and masterful narrative to help visualize the space that surrounds him. With cultural studies authors Murray Foreman, Jeffery O.G Ogbar and M.K. Asante Jr., Illmatic is an album that is capable of making the listeners aware of social and cultural codes that exists within Nas and his work, which a good reason to include Illmatic as one the great masterpieces in Hip-Hop.


Asante Jr., M. K. It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop. The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation. (New, NY, St. Martin’s Press, 2008). “Keeping it Real Vs. Reel” and “What’s Really Hood? A Conversation With an African American Ghetto”. p 13-52.

Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. New York, NY: Basic Civitas, 2009. Print.

Cowie, Del F. “Nas – Battle Ready”. Exclaim.ca. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Devito, E.A. “Halftime”. Genius. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Dyson, Michael Eric. “Rebel In America”. Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic. pp. 33–60. Print.

Finder, Alan. “THE WASHINGTON HEIGHTS CASE; In Washington Heights, Dinkins Defends Actions After Shooting”. New York Times. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Forman, Murray. The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip Hop. (Middle, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2002). Pg 95.

Hill, Marc Lamont. “Critical Pedagogy Comes At Halftime: Nas As Black Public Intellectual [Excerpt].” Genius. Web. 12 Oct. 2014

Juon, Steve. “Nas Illmatic. RapReviews “Back to the Lab” series. RapReviews.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

MTV. “MTVNews.com: Nas: The Genesis.” MTVNews.com: Nas: The Genesis. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Ogbar, Jeffery O.G., Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 2007). Pg 12.

Robbins, Daniella V. “50 Cent: Smart Nas”. Blues and Soul.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

XXL Staff. “Nas Says New York City Wrote Illmatic”. Theneeds.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Oblique FX


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The requirements for this essay was to select a visual effects company in Montreal, Quebec and examine their involvement in the world of film. I chose Oblique FX! http://www.obliquefx.com/

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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Three key words are often used in a company’s description: experienced, mission, and professionalism. Of course, companies embrace each word differently in relation to the type of service they provide. As part of this main thesis, a visual effects service will be referring to an experienced team of skilled and professional artists with a mission to create stunning, photo-real visual effects that integrate seamlessly into a film (Oblique, 1). Oblique FX, a visual effects company based in Quebec, realizes this description and subsequently enables an analytical study on issues in contemporary cinema specifically raised by Professor Stephen Prince. As debated by Prince, the importance of achieving photorealism with visual effects in modern cinema include 2D compositing, matte paintings and simulations: techniques used by Oblique FX in selected films such as The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004), Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011), 300 (Zack Snyder, 2006), and Brokeback Mountain (And Lee, 2005).

2D compositing is the process of layering multiple images from separate sources as one (Prince, 59). Oblique FX adopted this technique for three shots in The Aviator where Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes required the visual effects company to integrate the actor into archival footage. Capturing DiCaprio’s accurate facial movements and expressions in front of a green screen, Oblique FX layered the actor’s face on that of Hughes and finalized the composite by matching the film stock. The success of this sequence gave a sense of veracity and continuity to DiCaprio’s portrayal of the late aviator and filmmaker (Oblique, 1). Being a diversified tool in the industry, compositing is similarly used in the matte painting technique.

Digital matte painting allows accurate representations of the filmmaker’s vision with much finer manipulation of the shot (Prince, 63). Oblique FX used this technique as part of their ninety-five shots in 300, forty-six shots in Source Code, and seventy shots in Brokeback Mountain, making constructions of foreground and background environment unnoticeable. The company’s work on Brokeback Mountain is further explained. Wide landscapes are established with the original back plate of the sky, followed by digital composites of mountains integrated with clouds, a foreground plate of actors Jake Gyllenhaal and/or Heath Ledger, sometimes computer-generated sheep duplicated in the foreground and/or background, and a rotoscope matte to systematically overlay the various components (Oblique, 1). As Prince responds to the medium’s possibility, “[it] enables a cameraman to make the picture he visualizes” (Prince, 80). This freedom is also realized in simulation, another technique effectively used by Oblique FX in Source Code.

Digital long takes are possible with action being covered in a single camera motion where actors are replaced by computer-generated representations of themselves. Applying the simulation process in Source Code, Oblique FX captured sequences of Jake Gyllenhaal leaping out of a moving train. Of course, they would not risk the actor’s life. The company captured one sequence of Gyllenhaal on the edge of the train and one of him rolling on a green-screen surface, which resulted in a computer-generated image of the actor. Finally rendered, the live action, complemented with the use of CGI, appeared genuine in the long shot (Oblique, 1). Expressing his excitement on digital humans in cinema, Mark Sagar, a graphics supervisor on Spiderman 2 (Sam Raimi, 2001), states, “We’re at an interesting age when we’re starting to be able to simulate humans down to the last detail” (Gregory, 6). Expanding on this idea, CGI also allows for greater verticality, meaning overcoming gravity in the character’s environment to visualize power or powerlessness (Whissel, 32). Like Gyllenhaal’s character in Source Code, he is in a struggle of epic proportions as a result of the CGI incorporated by Oblique FX to expand his terrain.

A choice of words were used purposefully in the analysis of the visual effects work by Oblique FX: accurate, veracity, continuity and genuine, with each word contributing to Stephen Prince’s discussion of issues relating to photorealism in contemporary cinema.

Digital effects allow filmmakers to imagine a new reality and to “create a world impossible to achieve by traditional methods” (Sidney, 14). Digital effects artists, including those at Oblique FX, do look for photorealism, but as Prince argues, it is to minimize the appearance of artificial computer-generated imagery and manipulate the footage to achieve images in likeness to cinematic traditions that moviegoers are familiar with (Prince, 95). Digital effects can achieve photorealism, but sometimes, as evident in the film 300, it is not a goal. Influenced by Frank Miller’s ink and watercolor paintings, it is clear that “the filmmakers never seek to persuade viewers that they are seeing landscapes that could be photographed” (Prince, 89).

Since the persistence of vision (Jackson, 40) determined the frame rates for interpreting motion, cinema has always been an illusion. As technology progresses, the underlying goal for Oblique FX and all visual effects companies is to imperceptibly composite real and simulated characters, objects and spaces (Prince, 183).


300. Dir. Zack Snyder. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2006. Online.

Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee. Focus Feautures. 2005. Online.

Gregory, T. Huang. “The New Face of Hollywood.” Technology Review 2004: 66-74. ProQuest. PROQUESTMS. 22 Mar. 2013 < http://0- search.proquest.com.mercury.concordia.ca/docview/195332879?accountid=10246

Jackson, Steven. “Digital Cinema: New Stories in the Dark.” Film Journal International (Archive: 1996-2000) Sep 01 1999: 40,40, 42. ProQuest. PROQUESTMS. 22 Mar. 2013 <http://0- search.proquest.com.mercury.concordia.ca/docview/1286135899?accountid=10246>.

“Oblique.” About Us. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2013.

“Oblique.” Film. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2013.

Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2012. Print.

Sidney, Steffi. “Digital Productions: Creating a New Reality.” Back Stage (Archive: 1960-2000) Aug 31 1984: 12B, 14B. ProQuest. PROQUESTMS. 22 Mar. 2013 <http://0- search.proquest.com.mercury.concordia.ca/docview/964114272?accountid=10246>.

Source Code. Dir. Duncan Jones. Summit Entertainment. 2011. Online.

Spider-Man 2. Dir. Sam Raimi. Columbia Pictures. 2004. Online.

The Aviator. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2004. Online.

Whissel, Kristen. “Tales of Upward Mobility: The New Verticality and Digital Special Effects,” Film Quarterly 59.4, Summer 2006: 23-34.

Lost in the Mirror: An Insight on Alan Zweig

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“Lost in the Mirror: An Insight on Alan Zweig” is an essay that analyzes Zweig’s self-reflexive documentaries Vinyl, I, Curmudgeon, and Lovable
Authors: Alberto D’Onofrio and Jonathan Bosco 
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Close-up: the cameraman enters the frame, changing the standard lens to a telephoto lens. He pans the camera to its side and continues filming the subject. This sequence is one of many in the documentary Man With A Movie Camera (Verkov, 1929) where the filmmaker is visible in the filmmaking process distinguishing the film as an early example of the Reflexive Mode of documentary. Making the audience aware of the film’s process is a standard in the Reflexive Mode, allowing an honest and truthful portrayal of a subject (Nichols, 3). Since then, filmmakers have made a reflection on their subjects through this mode, but some used the Reflexive Mode to make a reflection on themselves, thus exploring the personal documentary. George Semsel explains the importance of personal documentary in Notes from a Journal. He states, “You cannot make a film which can effectively alter the world until you have really looked at yourself and made an honest, forthright evaluation”. The trend of personal cinema began with Richard Hancox in the 1980’s as he encouraged personal documentary and motivated his students to “investigate questions of time, memory landscape and documentary convention” (Cole, 6). One student who emerged from Hancox’s schooling was Toronto native, Alan Zweig. Using the modes and conventions of the Reflexive Mode, Zweig makes a candid evaluation of himself, late in his career, in a trilogy of films (recognized as the Mirror Trilogy): Vinyl (2000), I, Curmudgeon (2004), and Lovable (2007). Showing truth to Semsel’s thoughts of personal documentary, Zweig’s Mirror Trilogy allows him to make an honest evaluation of others outside his reality in A Hard Name (2009).

In Alan Zweig’s Vinyl, the first film within the aptly named Mirror Trilogy, he focuses on record collectors and their huge collections. Zweig tries to go deep within the psychology of the collectors to discover the reasoning behind the big collections. He often inquires them about their collections, trying to deduce why anyone would continue on with such an over abundance of records within their domestic residence. In between his interviews with the record collectors, he monologues to a mirror, talking about his own experiences with record collecting and sharing anecdotes and personal stories, some of which are occurring at that moment. In reference to mice being found in his laundry:

“It was like it was saying: “Hey! Give up. Doesn’t matter, clean up, change your life, doesn’t matter we’re gonna be there… sullying everything, making everything seem like crap, all your efforts”.

(Alan Zweig in Vinyl)

The viewer is introduced to a very interesting cast of characters throughout the documentary. One man wants to collect every single record that exists, while another has half a million records in his house, filling up his entire cellar and even his bathroom. One man, after surviving testicular cancer, went to collecting to cheer him up, and another lost half his collection to his ex-wife in a divorce.

As the documentary progresses, the viewer really gets a feel for each person and an understanding to their desire of records. One collector describes that feeling of magic upon discovering a song he’s never heard and another describes the thrill of being at a record store and searching through albums. However, most of the collectors and even Zweig had noted that it’s not just about the music, for some it was (they would collect because they enjoyed the music), for others, it was an obsession. Just as a nail biter would keep biting his/her nails as a form of “grooming”, the record collector will keep buying records as his/her form of “grooming”, even if they do not necessarily need the record, it is that feeling of satisfaction that drives them. A moment happens to Zweig, where he buys a stack of old Jewish records, stating he does not need them but he cannot just leave them there – it is like a siren call. One man describes the obsession to collect as a form of psychological illness, whereas unresolved problems from a person’s life can lead them to collect as a way of compensating for that.

As the documentary progresses the viewer quickly realizes Zweig’s intentions, he seems to want to find an answer as to why he is single with no kids. He feels his collecting is the leading cause of this problem in his life and, through the film, is trying to have that theory validated. He often questions the collectors about their personal and romantic lives and always acts shocked when he hears that one of them has a girlfriend, stating it must be incredibly difficult due to all the time it takes to be a collector, as if the prospect of a romantic relationship just cannot happen due to collecting. The viewer gets a closer look at his sad life and his yearning for a wife and family as he tries to discover the real reason for being single. This common theme also appears in his second film, I, Curmudgeon.

I, Curmudgeon is the second film in Zweig’s personal Mirror Trilogy, which offers another insight on the filmmaker – his bad-tempered, disagreeable, and stubborn personality. In the film, he reveals the irritable nature of his personality with the reflection from a mirror, which is explained in three categories:

“Popular culture and all its crap, category 1. Category 2 is how my life did not go the way I wanted it to. Category 3 is man’s inhumanity to man, lack of charity, lack of kindness, lying, phoniness, cowardliness, all the stupid things done in the name of religion and patriotism, war, pestilence, violence, and mistreatment, and pollution, alienation, stupid, stupid people, all the horrible things in the world”.

(Alan Zweig in I, Curmudgeon)

Zweig describes his life as a three-act division where he finds himself growing bitter in the second act of his life, when he was in his twenties. At this time, his filmmaking career was not successful, a passion that developed at the end of his first-act. When others started calling him a curmudgeon in his thirties, Zweig thought it was the world around him causing this. As he was about to quit his filmmaking aspirations, he got lucky, thus starting the third act of his life where he tries to figure out the fallout and resolution to his negativity. This is an issue Zweig deals with the cast of curmudgeons as he provides an insightful study of their lives.

From the personalities Zweig used in the film, a few were recognizable figures – comedian Scott Thomson, authors Cintra Wilson and Fran Lebowitz, and comic book writer Harvey Pekar who also appeared in Vinyl. The others are ordinary, everyday people with a unique story to tell that all communicate their pessimistic character. Stories range from personal anecdotes to discussions with Zweig who is evidently in the room with them behind the camera. Some describe small but significant stories. If someone extensively describes his or her great and successful life, he’ll be happy on the outside but inside he’s saying, “Go f—- yourself”. Or if someone says, “Hey, lets go see this movie”, he’ll say, “Nah, it’s a piece a crap” or if one says, “Nice weather”, he’ll reply, “It could be better”. The same person defined his negativity as a smart-ass quality rather than depressive, and points out that there is difference. Zweig demonstrates this as well with his selection of personalities. Some will show a heavy frown while others will have a smirk or a smile.

Zweig makes appearances from the reflection of a mirror also telling us anecdotes from his life to track the sources of his personality. He describes an event where his friends spoke about a sneaker commercial that they really enjoyed where Zweig was the one thinking it was terrible and expressed this truthfully. While he was serious about his opinion, others felt pity and told him the little value of that commercial. Even one of the cast members told Zweig that he took it too seriously, and his friends were right. This also demonstrates the therapeutic, and analytical discussions between Zweig and his fellow curmudgeons.

Zweig closes the documentary with ideas relating to the theme of love. He introduces this with a story about his smoking habits. Smoking was a way to relieve his negativity to others with a big puff of smoke to their face. When quitting, he had to find other ways to express this. Subtly, he advises, “If a women says I hope you’re not quitting for me – it means she’s out [knows she won’t be in the relationship much longer]”. When a man confronts Zweig asking about his level of happiness, he replies, “two… two-and-three-quarters if I had a girlfriend”. Zweig continues, ultimately providing a fitting end to I, Curmudeon by confessing his biggest problem: “I’m not happy, I’m alone”. Zweig directs his love dilemma to the final chapter of his Mirror Trilogy, Lovable.

The common theme is most apparent within Alan Zweig’s Lovable, the third and final installment of the Mirror Trilogy. In it Zweig interviews single women with the intention of discovering the reason for them being single. The viewer is presented to a lovely group of women, all attractive with great personalities, who, despite their best efforts, still manage to remain single. Throughout the film, the women continuously try to understand it themselves, often expressing their frustration and just trying to find an answer to the question: “what is wrong with me?” The women come up with various theories to this question. One believes her aura presents a feeling of “I don’t need a man”, another believes there is the possibility she just is not marriageable and another who felt she lost her chance by not staying with a high school sweetheart (she considered staying with one as archaic). Sadly, it does not end there; most of the women are heavily affected by their single lives. One woman finds it difficult to stay occupied being single, another women’s grandmother was easily willing to give up a tea set she was saving for her granddaughter’s wedding, that’s how little faith she had in her granddaughter finding a husband, another has breakdowns just seeing regular couples and another contacts old boyfriends when she’s ovulating to fill that void in her life.

In between interviews with these women, Zweig reflects upon his own single-hood. He mentions his favorite activity as sitting at a café, watching the people go by, especially the women. Occasionally, a woman would go by and he would think to himself, “What would my future be like with her?”. Zweig, also, describes a great amount of dates that he went on throughout the documentary, most ending really badly. One date, he had mentioned to the girl the great chemistry they had and she replied, “Well that’s too bad”, and another broke up with him because of her many experiences of short relationships, which she felt would repeat with Zweig. He continues on dates hoping to find the one during the filming of the documentary, so there can be a happy ending. Sadly, that is not the case as near the end of the film he explicitly says, “I give up”. This ending really hits hard as throughout the documentary Zweig describes this undying want to have a wife and kids. This want had become so deep for Zweig he would end a relationship for the sole reason that a kid was not desired. He had not truly felt that gap in his life until a friend told him that he “Wants to have a full life, to experience everything within reason that life has to offer” (Friend by Zweig in Lovable). This was a defining moment for Zweig as this absence of a family he had barely felt before had blown up to great proportions. He stated that when searching on dating sites, he does not look for someone who seems fun or pretty, but someone who he could spend his life with (which, has not worked in his favor). This need is so big for Zweig that he acts completely shocked when a woman actually says she is perfectly happy being alone and in fact, enjoys it. Zweig seems to be completely baffled at the fact that someone can be content with the idea of being alone. Zweig ends the documentary by stating he will still be searching and believes it to be self-destructive yet hopeful, quoting a song “I believe my dreams may still come true, someday you’ll show me they really want me to. Gee whiz, that’s not the way it is, but that’s my favorite dream”, ending the documentary on a bittersweet note.

The Mirror Trilogy, unofficially referred to as the “Trilogy of Narcissism” (Michael, 1), although set with different subjects and opinions, it is all dealt in the same reflexive way. Most evidently, Zweig uses mirrors to reflect upon his views and personal life. Although, the mirror seems to be an obvious metaphor to the reflexive mode and his self-reflexivity he’s portraying in his documentaries, it works as a simple and effective tool. The mirrors put him in a vulnerable position that allows him to express his emotions sincerely to the camera (Michael, 1). The way his mirror shots are framed, in terms of mise-en-scene, are also reflective of his personality and emotions that he felt during that stage of his life and at that specific moment as well. For example, in I, Curmudgeon, one of his mirror set-ups include a book titled “Tell me About Chanukah”, a bah-mitzvah story prayer book, reflecting his Jewish heritage. In another mirror shot, he includes his cab driver’s identification card, reflecting his early life as an unsuccessful filmmaker before the Mirror Trilogy. In Vinyl, various vinyl records are often seen around the mirror in his mirror shots. The records often reflect either a mood he is feeling or relates to the story he is telling, for example a Curtis Mayfield album is shown while he talks about his experiences collecting Curtis Mayfield albums. The same occurs within Lovable, where most of the vinyls shown have a feminine or female figure on the album cover. Some of the last mirror sequences in the trilogy, seen in Lovable, involve Zweig cleaning his mirrors, a possible metaphor for him cleaning up his life in the aftermath of the trilogy. The most obvious aspect of the mirror shots seen in all three films is the presence of the camera.

The presence of the camera within the mirror shots is one of the defining characteristics that define this trilogy within the reflexive mode of documentary, making the viewer aware of the film’s process. Even during the interviews, the camera and Zweig himself can often be seen reflected in windows in the background. Sometimes, Zweig is also seen manipulating the camera. For example, in I, Curmudgeon, one of the personalities asks Zweig if he can zoom in to get a medium shot. Zweig agrees and does the change. In other modes of documentary filmmaking this scene would usually be cut out in the editing process, but Zweig includes it, maintaining the true nature of his work. This occurs, as well, at the beginning of Vinyl, where the first thing the viewer sees is Zweig fixing the camera to frame himself in the mirror. With the evident jump cuts, camera work and on-screen microphones, the viewer is left with an informal style of work. Subsequently, this style translates into his interviews.

His style of interview is anecdotal; it feels like a therapy session whereas the interviewees have an unscripted and natural essence to their dialogue. Not only is this helpful for the interviewee but important for Zweig as well, as he tries to reflect upon his similar problems. As he mentioned in a TVO interview, he does not meet up with his interviewees before the interviews. He sets up his camera within five minutes and starts recording as soon as it is set. He described his way of interviewing as spontaneous; he has no agenda nor a list of questions, he lets it happen. As Zweig says in the same interview, “When other people do their research… I shoot my research” (Zweig, TVO). This form of filming allows for a deeper connection with the interviewees. As Zweig stated for the TVO website, “For me a good documentary story is anything that has a whiff of honesty or authenticity about it… Humanity will shine through the screen” (Zweig, TVO). This very thing occurs with each and every individual interviewed. The interviewees are relatable people and through their humanity leave the viewer wanting to know more about them. Zweig does not involve a whole crew to do his interviews, it is only him and his camera, allowing there to be more intimacy between him and the interviewee. As one interviewee said, “Being interviewed by Alan certainly gave me the feeling of being a bug under a microscope because the personal nature of his inquiry brought me to a new level of self-reflection” (Cole, 4). Michael Cartmell, filmmaker and participant in I, Curmudgeon also complimented Zweig’s ability to talk anecdotally and “and [to] do so coherently, humorously, touchingly. This is his master trait; it’s who he is, as far as I’m concerned” (Cole, 2). The relationship between Zweig and the people, along with all the technical qualities involved, is the most common characteristic that translates into Zweig’s most ambitious project A Hard Name.

With Zweig’s personal, self-analytical work in the Mirror Trilogy, he was able to grow as a filmmaker and a person. Zweig was able to make a forthright, truthful evaluation of himself in the Mirror Trilogy, therefore allowing him to make an honest observation on a deeper subject with different personalities than himself. Following George Semsel’s ideals on the personal documentary, Zweig focused on his next film, A Hard Name, a film about eight middle-aged ex-convicts and their struggle to live normal lives. It follows the same reflexive approach he took with the Mirror Trilogy but he focuses on the ex-convicts rather than himself. His usual mirror set-up is not included but Zweig’s presence is still felt because his voice is heard from the sincere, therapeutic conversations he has with the people. The development of Zweig’s career and personal life is evident from the success of A Hard Name and the long road it took for him to get there with the Mirror Trilogy. A Hard Name deservingly earned Zweig a Genie Award, honoring him as a successful Canadian director and since then has started a successful family of his own (Pevere, 2). This perhaps extends his three-act-structured life to four – the fourth being fatherhood.

Zweig’s efforts, put into his most successful film A Hard Name, would not have been possible if it were not for his journey of self-reflexivity, seen in the Mirror Trilogy, which is made up of Vinyl, I, Curmudgeon and Lovable. In order to truly make a film about the humanity of people, he had to understand his own humanity first. His look into himself, be it his obsession with record collecting, his negative, curmudgeous ways or his investigative search into the truth behind bachelorhood, allowed him to create a film that could represent the humanity of others as if they were himself. Along with his unique filmmaking style and his knowledge of documentary, from an education provided by Hancox, Zweig was able to truly create films with heart. As George Semsel stated in Notes From a Journal, “Film, like education, comes out of the heart: one teaches because one loves and so one makes films”. Through his love of film, Zweig has taught us all lessons in humanity that one will never forget.


A Hard Name. Dir. Alan Zweig. 2009. Online.

“Alan Zweig.” TVO. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.


Cole, “Focus on Alan Zweig: The Curmudgeon Turns Lovable,” Point of View, No. 82 (Summer, 2011), 4-8.

“Hot Docs Q and A on A Hard Name with Alan Zweig and Others.” TVO. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.


I, Curmudgeon. Dir. Alan Zweig. 2004. Online.

Lovable. Dir. Alan Zweig. 2007. Online.

Man With A Movie Camera. Dir. Diza Vertov. 1929. Online.

Michael, Joseph. “Behind the Doc: Alan Zweig.” BlogTO RSS. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.


Nicols, Bill. “Modes of Documentary.” Web. 8 Dec. 2012.


Pevere, Geoff. “Alan Zweig, the Man in the Mirror.” Toronto.com Web. 10 Dec. 2012.


Semsel, George, “Notes from a Journal,” (condensed by Hancox), unpublished, 1976, 1-2.

Vinyl. Dir. Alan Zweig. 2000. Online.

Takes Two to Hustle

– – – “Takes Two to Hustle” is my latest film. It is shot on 16mm and Mini-DV. The process for this film was an incredible learning experience; from pre-production, shooting, and editing – definitely my biggest production so far. … Continue reading

Rookie of the Protocol


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This is a film I co-wrote and co-direct with a good friend of mine. It was a film exercise on incorporating self-reflexivity where “reflexive cinema is about films which call attention to themselves as cinematic constructs” (William C. Siska, 285). Shot on 16mm film, enjoy!

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One day in the life of a wannabe gangster named Fabio; or at least that’s what the filmmakers who wrote this are telling you.
Starring Luigi Buffone
With: Jonathan Bosco, Dexter Allen and Carmela Mazzarello

The King of Comedy: Martin Scorsese of the Eighties


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“The King of Comedy: Martin Scorsese of the Eighties” is an essay on Scorsese’s 1983 film “The King of Comedy” – his most underrated film in my opinion.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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It was my first year of college when I was introduced to my favorite film director – Martin Scorsese. Of course, my fascination with the filmmaker spawned from the films: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995). These were the films most associated with Scorsese in the context of my films studies courses as they are a good representation of the auteur’s vibrant and recognizable style of filmmaking from his use of popular music, deep character studies, blending of fast-paced and slow-paced cutting, and explicit violence. In my early attraction with filmmaking, these were the five Scorsese pictures I would constantly watch. However, I never seemed to notice that wide gap between 1980 and 1990. This became clear when a very influential film studies teacher of mine mentioned in class, “Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) is, in my opinion, the most interesting character ever portrayed by Robert De Niro”. I could not believe it – within the cast of Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Jimmy Conway, and Sam Rothstein? I had never heard of this film before. Who was Rupert Pupkin? What was so special about The King of Comedy? These questions could have only been answered by watching the film – and I did. It has become one of my favorite Scorsese films and as I study the director’s career, I realize that much attention is focused on his visually stylistic pieces, leaving The King of Comedy underappreciated by mainstream audiences. For example, it is included in many lists of Martin Scorsese’s most underrated films.

Fantasy versus Reality

Though The King of Comedy is often described as one of Martin Scorsese’s greatest films and collaborations with Robert De Niro, it is also his most disturbing, a film about the desperate and struggling comedian Rupert Pupkin who is willing to do anything to anyone in order to have a chance at the spot light. Its disturbing nature is a result of Scorsese’s uncommon stoic editing and camera work combined with Robert De Niro’s dark-comedic performance. The first encounter Pupkin has with talk-show host Jerry Langford is in the back of a limo. After minutes of constant discussion about Rupert’s career, Langford mentions he’ll contact his assistant in order to listen to this act. Rupert immediately replies, “You know how many times I’ve had this conversation in my head?” He is serious about that line, and as we see in the film, Rupert Pupkin has fantasies of having a relationship with his idol Jerry Langford and being a successful comic. Scorsese’s decision was to not treat fantasy and reality differently – he designed them as realistic as possible, making them live up to the dark comedic aspect of the film. There are sequences that are eerie to watch as a deranged Pupkin is reenacting conversations with others by himself whether they are shot as solely fantasy, reality, or both, and it is Scorsese’s filmic decisions that effectively achieve this.

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The first fantasy sequence is shotin two separate locations to set up Rupert’s reality, a man who lives in his mother’s basement. It is a conversation between Pupkin and Langford during a lunch meeting. In Rupert’s fantasy, Langford is asking him to take over the Jerry Langford Show for six weeks. Of course, in his fantasy, Pupkin acts like a big shot and belittles Langford. The fantasy scene cuts back midway through Rupert’s dialogue to the reality of him reenacting the conversation in his basement. He finishes his line of dialogue and it immediately cuts back to the restaurant to capture Jerry’s response. During Rupert’s dialogue, he is also shownbeing interrupted by his mother, an off-screen voice. This forces Rupert to keep on repeating his lines desperately as he tries to ignore his mother. Finally, Rupert gives in, and accepts Jerry’s favor. He ends with a cheap joke while he and Jerry laugh away. It cuts back to Rupert laughing hysterically in his basement, but while he laughs, he moves quickly into Jerry’s position and laughs again. This is the only time in the film where Scorsese shows the audience the two settings of Rupert’s fantasies, and the rest are either shown in the fantasy world or in reality.

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The second fantasy sequence is of Rupert reenacting a talk show conversation with Jerry Langford and Liza Minnelli. Although instead of showing what Rupert is imagining in his mind, Scorsese only presents the scene in the reality of his basement, therefore Rupert is shown sitting in the middle of two cardboard cutouts of Langford and Minnelli.


The third fantasy sequence is when Rupert is recording his material for Jerry’s assistant. It is a very odd sequence as he is interacting in front of a large black and white mural of an audience. As he starts his monologue, his voice is drowned out by simulated laughter of the audience members and the camera slowly tracks back, revealing a surreal, cubic space. It does not look like his home, but it did appear real when the camera stayed in first position to capture a portion of the mural. Here, Scorsese is blurring fantasy elements with reality to build from the first fantasy sequence where he clearly distinguished both instances.


This leads to the next two fantasy sequences in Jerry’s office where he is praising Rupert’s work and in Jerry’s talk show where Rupert marries the woman of his dreams. They are presented only in the fantasy world. It is soon after this point in the film where Rupert becomes aggressive and takes big risks to get his meeting with Jerry Langford. He breaks into the offices only to get kicked out by security and even breaks into Jerry’s home. The only times Scorsese shows Rupert and Jerry together after the beginning of the film is in the fantastical realm of Rupert’s mind which makes the scene between Jerry and Rupert in the Langford residence very uncomfortable. When Langford finally arrives only to see Rupert in his own home, he is obviously furious but oddly enough, Rupert acts as if they have already been friends for a long time – it may be so in Rupert’s fantasy world but it is so bizarre to watch him actually believe it and be so convinced about the situation.

Bizarre is the appropriate word to describe these scenes, and Scorsese also makes use of this strange nature in completely realistic sequences such as Rupert’s dinner date with Rita Keane. The scene is a simple two-shot conversation between Rupert and Rita. Though in the middle of the scene, a man walks by their table and sits at the back of the restaurant facing Rita. As a delusional Rupert begins speaking about him being “the new king of comedy”, the man in the back laughs and mimics every hand gesture Rupert makes. Scorsese shot this in order to make the audience aware of this odd character in the background. When the camera is on Rita, there’s a shallow depth-of-field, revealing little of the background but when the camera is on Rupert, there is a recognizably larger depth-of-field making the man behind Rupert more apparent. Even in a realist setting, Scorsese finds a way to add a small, yet strange idea to relate to the dark-comedy tone of the film.


The last act of the film involves Rupert kidnapping Langford at gunpoint in order to perform on The Jerry Langford Show. He does perform at the show but is sent to prison for his crime. The ending treats Jerry as a “king”; millions of people tuned in for his performance, books of his memoir are being sold and after being released from prison, he becomes the host of his own show. Scorsese has blurred the lines between reality and fantasy so effectively that this ending is debatable as to whether it is real or just another wacky vision in Rupert’s demented mind. To give my opinion, I believe it is a fantasy, but after each viewing, I generate a more significant reason to defend my argument. At first, the simple reason was that Rupert is dressed all in red. After another viewing, I argued that he does not speak to the audience. Finally, my latest argument is that when the announcer introduces Rupert, he constantly repeats a variation of, “Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentleman, Rupert Pupkin!” It is as if Rupert is in his basement and his mother is constantly interrupting, causing him to repeat everything in order to reenact the fantasy without disruption, much like in the film’s first fantasy sequence.

The fact that audiences are debating about the film’s ending is a testament to how much thought Scorsese put into designing the fantasy sequences throughout the film to draw a thin line between fantasy and reality. Considering the amount of analysis a film can solely have on its fantasy versus reality sequences, it is surprising how underrated the film is and how it was critically panned at the time of its release.

A “Scorsese” Movie

The King of Comedy was the next Scorsese film after Raging Bull, which was (at that point) the director’s most visually stylized film in his career – merely based on fight sequences alone! Even Thelma Schoonmaker admittedly said that the film won Best Editing for just the fight sequences! (Schwartz, 6) Scorsese’s previous films Taxi Driver and Mean Streets had a distinct style as well for the young filmmaker. This may have been a possibility for The King of Comedy’s lack of appreciation – the lack of “Scorsese”. As Roger Ebert states, “The King of Comedy is the kind of film that makes you want to go and see a Scorsese movie” (Ebert, 84).

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Roger Ebert is accurate that it is by far, his least stylized film. The camera is still throughout much of the film, and the editing is limiting. However, it is inaccurate to say that it incorporates absolutely zero traits of the auteur. The film opens with a sequence outside of Jerry Langford’s theater that demonstrates stylistic elements to justify this as a Scorsese film. Jerry walks out into the crowd in slow motion, and is juxtaposed with the quick white flashes of the light bulbs (a stylistic element that spawned from the fight sequences in Raging Bull). The freeze-frame is a well known Scorsese editing technique and is used when Masha is frantically trying to get to Jerry Langford in the limo – her hands are still in the blind light and the opening credits roll. Throughout the film, Scorsese makes use of low-quality video footage to capture the “look” of television, the way home audiences would see The Jerry Langford Show. Scorsese is known for his use of different media. In Mean Streets, Scorsese used Super 8 footage while in Raging Bull he incorporated still photographs. The color red is distinctly everywhere in The King of Comedy! Neck-ties, the carpet on the steps outside of Langford’s city home, the waiters jackets, the walls in his basement, the walls of Jerry’s apartment, and finally, Rupert’s full-red suit in the ending. Inspired by The Red Shoes (Pressburger, Powell, 1948) it is a color frequently used by Scorsese. For him, as a Catholic, it represents the blood of Jesus Christ and violence. It is a dominant color that draws the audience’s attention. It also symbolizes danger, and immoral behavior, appropriate qualities to relate to Rupert Pupkin (LoBrutto, 29).

Conclusion: Scorsese and the Eighties

Although The King of Comedy was a change in pace for Scorsese and his energetic style, audiences had to become used to the simple, yet effective Martin Scorsese in his following films in the eighties: After Hours (1985), The Color of Money (1986), and his passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). His low-key and low budget films of the eighties actually developed from failed attempts to make The Last Temptation of Christ. Before The King of Comedy, Scorsese asked De Niro to play Jesus and he was not interested – he wanted to try a comedy (Baxter, 219). Scorsese then could not get Last Temptation financed so he did the low-budget comedy, After Hours (Variety, 1). Scorsese then made The Color of Money, a film that made it possible to make The Last Temptation of Christ since it showed that Martin Scorsese can make profitable films (Schickel, 164). Last Temptation still developed as a low-budget film with a very limited shooting schedule of fifty-five days, so again, Scorsese depended on a minimal aesthetic style to end his string of eighties films.

What is interesting about The King of Comedy and the remainder of the eighties for Scorsese is that he was able to demonstrate a wide range of film aesthetics from stylist to minimal pieces while still being effective in its own way. Today, we know the director as a bigger-budget filmmaker who is bringing us entertaining, yet provoking pieces such as The Aviator (2004) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). When recently asked about if he would ever go back to his roots of shooting low budget, Scorsese answered, “Absolutely. I’m dying to. And there are two projects that I have in mind that way”. Only time will tell what Scorsese has in store for us!

Epilogue – Film Criticism Position

            I chose The King of Comedy as a film criticism topic because it is often an underappreciated and rarely discussed Scorsese film among the general audience. Since some critics, like Roger Ebert, believed that it was “not really a Scorsese” film, I took the vantage point of the director’s influence on the style of the film even if it was minimalist compared to his previous work. Scorsese still had to make decisions on how to shoot the film, and I think he chose the right aesthetic for the subject matter, therefore I believe an auteur stance is interesting for The King of Comedy. It is also a style that is relevant to Scorsese in the eighties, an idea I wanted to conclude with. In addition, I reference the director’s other works as well to compare and contrast, while also mentioning films that he is inspired by.


After Hours. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros., 1985.

The Aviator. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004.

Baxter, John. De Niro: A Biography. London: HarperCollinsEntertainment, 2003. Print.

Casino. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal Pictures, 1995.

The Color of Money. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Buena Vista Distribution, 1986.

Ebert, Roger. Scorsese by Ebert. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008. Print.

Goodfellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros., 1990.

The King of Comedy. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Twentieth-Century Fox, 1983.

The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal Pictures, 1988.

LoBrutto, Vincent. Martin Scorsese: A Biography. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. Print.

Mean Streets. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros., 1976.

Raging Bull. Dir. Martin Scorsese. United Artists, 1980.

The Red Shoes. Dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. General Film Distributors, 1948.

Schickel, Richard. Conversations with Scorsese. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Schwartz, David. A Pinewood Dialogue With Thelma Schoonmaker. Museum of the Moving Image. Nov. 24, 2002.

Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Columbia Pictures, 1976.

Variety Staff. “After Hours”. Variety. 1985.

The Wolf of Wall Street. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures, 2013.