Thursday, December 29, 2005

Musing Pictures: What this Blog is All About

This blog is not about film reviews. Everyone writes film reviews. In these posts, I will not rate a movie with stars, or thubs, or tomatoes. I will avoid telling you what you should or shouldn't see.

This is a blog for thoughts and discussions about movies -- both current and old. This is a blog for film lovers everywhere to unite in conversation, discussion, and reflection on the art, science, culture and entertainment of moving pictures.

These posts began on livejournal, where they were buried between various other unrelated entries. It's about time "Musing Pictures" was its own blog.


Sunday, December 25, 2005

Musing Pictures: Munich

I am very surprised at some of the negative press this film received before its release.

I had an opportunity to see "Munich" on Friday, catching a mid-day matinee on the first day of its release.

It is a very delicate film, despite the strength with which it comes across -- and it is one of the darkest, most subdued of Spielberg's films.

It begins with the Munich Olympics massacre, in a sequence that combines re-enactment and a combination of authentic news footage. The combination allows us to feel the horror of the event while feeling the truthfulness of it -- regardless of whether everything else in the film happened the way it did, the massacre at Munich is real, is caught-on-film, and as such, that gives the re-enactment a great deal of weight and significance.

Spielberg has made films about the Holocaust, the Second World War, and African Slavery. For the first time, he has made a film about an event which he can remember, himself. I imagine that Spielberg's memories of Munich are from the news media -- and he gives us, especially those of us too young to remember, not just the opportunity to see the news reports he saw, but, through the dramatization, he grands us the opportunity to experience it all with an immediacy that a history lesson can never convey.

And that sets the tone for the film that follows -- a film that is a dramatization, inspired by true events, but never claiming to be a full representation of them. In its deviance from pure fact, "Munich" manages to tell a story of meta-truth, capturing the great complexities of this chapter in Israel's history in one story. Thankfully, Spielberg does not try to dillute those complexities. In bringing them all down to just a few characters in one relatively limited series of events, Spielberg manages to concentrate those complexities, to bring them all in to full-view all at once.

The power of "Munich" is that it manages to express the deep trauma of Israel in a universal way -- and I say "of Israel" because both Spielberg and the film's primary writer Tony Kushner, care deeply about Israel. As complex as the film is, its views on Palestinians are exclusively views from-the-outside. This is a personal film, and as such, any attempt at a more personal view of Palestinians would have detracted from the film's honesty. Palestinians have a voice, and a very interesting one, but it is not a voice that is different from the voice of Palestinian Public Relations offices all over the world -- and it is combined with the voice we hear of terrorists and the folks who encourage and support them (in case you worried that Palestinians come off as peaceniks -- they don't.)

"Munich" is a Jewish film, about a Jewish state that struggles desperately with the double-need to both exist and to do the right thing in the face of not an in-human enemy, but an enemy with a face, with a name, and with its own claims. Too often, on the news, we hear about Israel killing X number of people. It's too rare that we see the agony people face, on their own and among their friends, when trying to decide whether to pull the trigger, or detonate the explosive.

I am relieved about one thing: In his effort to try to convey the complexity of the conflict, Spielberg could have run in to the trap of making stuff up -- and I don't mean in terms of the basic narrative.

Spielberg shows the Israelis struggling with killing people who are VERY guilty of severe crimes. He shows them going to extreme lengths, jeopardizing their own mission, to avoid killing civillians and bystandards (even when they use bombs (!!!)) This has been a public conversation in Israel for thirty years, so it's not made up.

To balance this off, Spielberg could have portrayed the Palestinians as somehow similarly humane... but since Munich, the approach of Palestinian millitants has been purely terroristic -- that is, not only have they not made efforts to avoid killing civillians, but they have actively pursued policies of killing civillians at random and without mercy. Spielberg does not try to portray Palestinian terrorism in a "better light". On the contrary, he keeps bringing images of the Munich massacre back, to remind us, over and over again, just how horriffic that type of violence is, and just how important it is to respond very strongly to it. Spielberg eventually questions the particular response, but not the need to respond harshly.

Were the film to suggest a conclusion to the whole mess, it would be a weak film. It is a film about the confusion of the situation, and about the difficulty of actually, truly rising above it.

If you have a strong opinion against the film, I urge you to take a look at Spielberg's own defense of the work -- a defense I feel he shouldn't have been put in the position of having to make. His comments are here: and here:


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Musing Pictures: King Kong (2005)

Ok, Ok, Peter Jackson can finally count me as a fan.

There are potential spoilers below, but come on, you KNOW what happens!

As you may recall, I was half-hearted in my appreciation of each of his "Lord of the Rings" films, especially the first one. This had mostly to do with certain techniques that Jackson employs (slow motion, "flickering" images (it has to do with doubling certain frames and eliminating other frames in a regular pattern if you want to get technical about it), and an uncomfortably close dance along the edge of the "too much happening on the screen" line (which is one that Lucas, for example, crosses religiously in the recent "Star Wars" additions.))

Jackson used the same techniques here, in his carefully wrought re-make of the 1933 Cooper and Schoedsack classic, "King Kong", but the film tells a much smaller story than the one he had to tackle with his "Rings" films, and that makes a huge difference.

What made the original '33 "King Kong" such a lasting success wasn't the special effects, and it certainly wasn't the camerawork (which tends to be very static and plain). What gave the original film the right to call itself a classic was the efficiency and effectiveness of the story.

"King Kong" is not only a near-perfect three-act narrative (Going to/confronting Skull Island, Adventures on the Island, Adventures in New York), but it also incorporates very strongly those necessary points along its narrative arc that give it direction -- The incident that incites the action is straightforward and believable, the parallel narratives of Darrow/Kong and Everyone Else/Island Creatures are crisply interwoven, and the twist at the end of the second act that slingshots us in to the third act is absolutely perfect.

It is with this moment that I would like to begin my musings.

The third act of a (good) film is not merely resolution. It is often an escalation that follows what looks like it should be a resolution -- and it's an escalation that leads to a new, often more extreme result.

If King Kong had been a bad film, it would have gone like this:

Carl Denham goes to Skull Island to get footage for his film. Ann Darrow gets kidnapped by the Ape. Rescue party formed. Adventures in Jungle. Ann is rescued. Everyone goes home.

Clearly, this would be a fairly mundane, uninteresting story. The brilliance of King Kong is that in order to make this an excellent story, NOTHING IS CHANGED, but something is added. It's the 2nd act twist:

Denham's intentions (but not his motivations) change. He thought he would make a movie, but oh no, now he can do something better: He can capture Kong and bring him back alive.

This twist launches us beautifully in to the third act, which shows the bitter consequences of Denham's ambition, with Kong famously ripping up New York.

I was pleased to see that Jackson knew where the Kong story's effectiveness lay. When the Ape is finally put to sleep at the end of the 2nd act, Denham remarks that in a few months, Broadway will be lit up by the words "Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World". Fade to black, and up comes the third act, with the Broadway sign, and patrons clamoring at the theater entrance for a ticket. It is line-for-line, shot-for-shot the transition that Cooper and Schoedsack employ in the original film. Jackson made no attempt to bring us back on to the ship, to show Kong being transported, to show Darrow telling her story, or any of that stuff that we are left to imagine in the original film. He knew, without a doubt, that the strength of "King Kong" lies deep within that transition, that elision of time which allows us to complete our film's journey.

Jackson knew some other things, too.

He did not only borrow moments, shots, lines and transitions from the original film, but he made sure to incorporate some of the music, as well.

Few people realize that "King Kong", in 1933, was the first film to have an underscore -- music that plays along underneath certain scenes. The music, by Max Steiner (famous for his scores to "Gone with the Wind" and "Casablanca") makes an appearance (very appropriately) during the New York "premiere" of King Kong -- it is played by the theater's pit orchestra.

And that leads me to something fascinating about both the 1933 and the 2005 versions of the film.

They both seem to be simultaneously praising and putting down their own medium.

"King Kong" is a film. In it, there is a character who sets out to shoot a film. That film which he shoots includes King Kong. He decides, though, that oh no, film is grand and all, but you know what would be better? THE REAL THING. In this way, he becomes a theater producer in an instant. So, theater is all well-and-good, but do you know what happens next? In theater, the Monster doesn't stay stuck in two dimensions, on a canvas screen. In theater, the monster CAN EAT YOU. And it does. And aren't we all just so reassured that we're not watching a play right now?

This is a subtlety of the 1933 version of the film which Peter Jackson openly challenges.

Ann Darrow wants to be an actress in the theater. Denham's film canisters break open, leaving him with no useable footage (which gives him a stronger motive to decide to bring Kong back). Jackson introduces a new character to the story -- a playwright named Jack Driscoll (played by Adrien Brody) who is recruited to write Denham's film. Driscoll doesn't seem to like movies much, and says so on at least one occasion.

Most interestingly, Jackson adds a scene in which Darrow, at a loss for what to do as Kong's latest captive, begins to pull tricks out of her vaudeville routine, slowly discovering that Kong finds her amusing -- it is their first real interaction, and as such, it is a testament to the power of the theater -- or, at least, to the interpersonal, direct nature of the theater.

I don't have anything against the theater, but I'm not so sure I like the way Jackson balances things out here. It's a (very slight) deviation from the simplicity of the original story, and although it's interesting to think about in its own right, I wonder if it really works for the film.

But these are all details! Details!

For those of you who want to know if I liked the film -- I did. Quite a bit, in fact. It was a thoughtful adventure, much slower than modern adventures (but modern adventures are impatient and deceptive -- this is not a modern adventure). And it was very genuine.

One more digression: Communication.

It is amazing how many movies there are about communication and miscommunication.

It seems as though every major cinematic conflict could be resolved if people knew how to talk to one another. If Kong could talk... or if Vader and Luke had only spent some time around a coffee table... There's a lot of anxiety when people talk to each other but don't understand each other... especially when we seem to understand both of them. I think that's where a lot of the suspense in "King Kong" comes from -- that and the fact that we KNOW what will happen next (and as such, we know we can't avoid it).

It's interesting how much more conscious we can be of Destiny when we're watching remakes...


Monday, December 12, 2005

Musing Pictures: Syriana

Who is Stephen Gaghan?

At the end of "Syriana", credit is given to Gaghan for both writing and directing the film.

Looking him up, I was not so surprised to see that one of his (relatively few) other credits was for writing the screenplay to Soderbergh's "Traffic".

"Syriana" is like "Traffic" but with Oil Money replacing Drug Money as the root of corruption in a web of even more corruption that reaches the highest levels of governments that are already (you guessed it!) corrupt.

I remember "Traffic" being refreshing -- it was a web, and a complicated, disjointed one, but it was also cohesive in its clear condemnation not only of drugs, but of the terrible blood-economy of their trade.

Although "Syriana" is somewhat of a repetition of "Traffic" (that is, although it is by now approaching formulaic), it is still a fascinating film to watch.

Unlike "Traffic", the elements of the story all interrelate much more directly -- but the clarity that "Traffic" had is missing from this film.

"Traffic" did not offer any solutions to the problems of the drug trade, but somehow, in a film about the evils of the people who bargain for national oil supplies, it's hard to say that folks who drive cars, or folks who heat their homes in winter are doing something wrong -- heck, it's hard to say that folks who negotiate shady business deals in order to offer cheaper, competitive oil prices are doing something wrong (especially when we're all still paying around $2 for a gallon of gas here, compared to what we paid a year ago). Unlike "Traffic", which is a film about selfishness on a grand scale, "Syriana" seems to be an even darker film, about selflessness failing.

The CIA agent who devotes his life to his work seems to inadvertently cause the very act he hopes to prevent. The oil barons who want to make sure that their customers are buying cheap gas, that their investors are earning dividends, and that the Chinese economy doesn't out-pace their own, end up de-stabilizing the oil market and instigating their own downfall. The lawyers who want to make sure things are done according to Law discover that the Law would throw the lives of everyone around them in to chaos, if it were only adhered to. The Prince who Would Rather Be King has strong, progressive ideas, but they get him killed, rather than getting him in to power. And even the Iranian kid, who wants to find work to bring his mother out of Iran ends up a suicide bomber -- a terrorist.

"Syriana" is a depressing film, but a fascinating one -- all of these characters, with their very different stories and very different backgrounds become involved one way or another with the Big Picture. And isn't that what movies seem to be about? The Big Picture?

I've seen some wonderful intimate portraits on the screen -- films about a particular person, etc. -- but it's always about taking that person and making him or her larger-than-life. Gaghan, it seems, does the reverse. He takes The Big Picture, and somehow manages to make it fit on The Big Screen (which, of course, is much smaller than The Big Picture ever was). In that way, though, this becomes a film about ideas, and not about characters. I don't remember their names, but I remember what they stood for -- and every character in the film stands for something. That's the greatest tradgedy of it. No one is right.

I read somewhere that this is a film that doesn't aim at a conclusion. It doesn't try to solve the world's problems. I'm glad that I read that before I saw the film -- otherwise I might have expected something that wasn't ever going to be there.

I'm glad that the next movie I'm seeing is going to be light. Even though it's star probably weighs quite a few tons... "King Kong" (the 1933 version) is the next film I'll be teaching, and I'm showing it tomorrow, less than twelve hours before Peter Jackson's version goes in to wide release...


Sunday, December 04, 2005

Musing Pictures: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Although I saw this film in its opening weekend, it has taken me a while to figure out what I want to write about it.

The "Harry Potter" films, so far, have served me well as examples of what to do and what not to do when adapting from a book.

The first two films of the series, in sticking so closely to the structure of Rowling's story, were long, drawn-out, and ultimately, quite slow. They were certainly enormous fun to look at (I remember being particularly tickled by the moving staircases and the animate paintings), but even the special effects did not quite lift those films beyond being simiply allright (which, considering the strengths of the books off of which they were based, is far worse than those films should have been).

Those first two films, directed by Chris Columbus, whose 1990s successes, including "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" are noteworthy achievements, did do one thing quite well: They prepared the stage marvellously for the two films that followed.

Alfonso Cuaron, who boldly deviated from Rowling's written word, could not have gotten away with such machinations of plot had Columbus not satisfied the world's fans first by sticking so closely to the narrative. Once fans saw what a close adaptation would be, they were more willing to accept the work of a director like Cuaron (who is certainly not "standard fare" when it comes to family entertainment).

And that brings us to Harry Potter IV, directed by Mike Newell, yet another unexpected helmer, who is known for films like "Donnie Brasco" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral". Here, it is clear, he had flexibility. The success, both popular and academic, of Harry Potter III gave Newell a great deal of leeway in terms of his adaptation of the book to the screen.

Frankly, I do not remember the book enough to know the differences, but I am sure that there are many. Part of my certainty lies in the pacing of the film itself.

A book is generally paced in small segments -- usually chapters -- each of which has its own mini-climax, and its own mini-resolution (which is often no resolution at all other than a convenient place to stop reading for the night). The first two Harry Potter films maintained a great deal of this pacing as a side-effect to staying so true to the books' narrative flow. Movies, though, aren't things that we see in short bits, the way we tend to read books. On the contrary, it is fairly rare that we don't see a movie straight through (and when we see a movie on TV, the commercials really do feel like interruptions, rather than coherent breaks).

What Cuaron did with the third Harry Potter film, and what Newell was wise to continue doing with the fourth, involved a re-working of the plot to eliminate the heavy down-beat of a chapter's end. Rather than telling the story in mini-chapters, each fragment of the tale wove cleanly in to the next, so the film's momentum never fell.

And who is David Yates?

The director of the next Harry Potter film, due in theaters in 2007, seems to have done a handful of TV movies and miniseries, including one called "Sex Traffic", of all things... and a few theatrical short-films... and just about nothing else. Now, I'm Really curious...


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Musing Pictures: Good Night and Good Luck

Early in the film "Good Night and Good Luck", I was struck by a line of Edward R. Murrow's. It was something like "there aren't always two equally valid sides to every story", and it set the tone for the questions of journalistic responsibility that the film, and the history it depicted, expressed.

Over the past four years or so, I have developed an interest in what it means for something to be "pure news". Much of this began with a recognition of strong anti-Israel biases in the media when things got excessively violent there around early 2002, and continued to develop as I began to watch Fox News, taking note of a different flavor to their reporting, which they label "fair and balanced".

"Good Night and Good Luck" really satisfied me, in that it was impartial without being wimpy. Was Murrow right to use his position as a "newsman" (he calls himself that, and indeed, he absolutely was one) to actively attack a politician and his actions? Or, as Murrow himself claimed, is it authentically non-biased "news" to report when a person does wrong? Or, as others point out in the film and beyond it, is the press overstepping its boundaries when it puts people on "trial"? Is pure impartiality dishonest reporting?

This last question strikes me as particularly interesting, because there is such a strong sense these days that an ideal news broadcast is a purely impartial -- that is, a noncommittal -- statement on stuff that has happened. This became particularly tricky whith reports on the Middle East in early 2002, when some press, in an effort to be "impartial", referred to murderers as "freedom fighters" on a regular basis, even though I'm sure the journalists themselves would have condemned murder-by-bus-bomb fervently. It all goes back to that early question in the film -- when the two sides of a story aren't equally valid, at what point can a reporter, or a news organization, depict one side as being "right" and the other side as being "wrong"?

I couldn't help thinking to myself, while watching the film, that Murrow's character reminded me a lot of Bill O'Reilley, of Fox News. I would be deeply shocked if O'Reilley didn't study Murrow's philosophies and techniques at some point in his early career. They both strike me as the sort of deeply patriotic men who editorialize out of obligation to the ideals they see their nation standing for.

And for a black and white film to gross more than its budget in wide release in only about five weeks is a good sign for filmmakers, too. It means some people are still willing to take serious film seriously -- even if it's not in color.


Sunday, October 23, 2005

Musing Pictures: MirrorMask

I saw MirrorMask in the middle of last week with my close friend and collaborator, Josh. In our conversation about the film on the way back from the theater, Josh said something that struck me as particularly apt and true. I paraphrase: "It was an art film that had no bones about being an art film -- it set out to achieve something, and it achieved it".

MirrorMask, the tale of a young girl who encounters a strange, dream-like adventure when her mother falls ill, has been compared to other young-girl-on-a-dream-mission stories like "The Wizard of Oz". Unlike that 1939 film, MirrorMask does not play to the typical mainstream. It takes the age-old motto, "there's no place like home", and begins pondering whose home that refers to -- is it my home? your home? Is one home better than another?

But the art and artistry of MirrorMask is in its visual tapestry, which is mostly righ out of the crazy mind of graphic artist and co-creator, Dave McKean.

An aside on digital effects: There is a huge quest underway in the filmmaking world to create digital effects that are more realistic than anything that came before them. In an article I read recently, the folks who created that fabulous character, Gollum, in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trillogy, talk all about one-upping themselves with his upcoming "King Kong" remake. It's all about crisp clarity, about "every hair on Kong's back", about every eyelash being absolutely lucid.

And there is why so much of MirrorMask struck me as so fascinating. MirrorMask's images are not crisp. There are layers, hints, as if each frame is its own graphic design. The actors interact in a CGI landscape that includes hand drawings and various other forms of animation interweaving and overlapping. It is a film that attempts to make graphic art move.

If you go to see this film expecting a straightforward, easy-to-follow story, you'll get more out of it by closing your eyes -- the visuals, which we usually rely on to understand the films we see, are so far from what we are used to that they can become very hard to follow. The narrative itself is fairly straightforward, but to really appreciate the film, I think you have to accept that the narrative isn't so significant. The point of this film is hidden somewhere among the drawings, paintings, renderings and animations that dance on the screen.

But this is why, when it comes down to it, I don't feel that MirrorMask is a fully successful film. There is a lot to be said for art films, but for an art film to be a narrative art film (as opposed to a purely experimental art film), it needs to work with its audience in mind. Films like "Memento" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", both of which I see as intentional works of art, were both made with a clear eye to the mainstream audience. experimental art films like Andy Warhol's "Sleep" (it's about eight hours long. Go guess what it's about.) are clearly meant to be concept-pieces (And I think even Warhol would have been really creeped out if there were millions of people flocking to theaters to see this film...) MirrorMask falls in between, somehow. It tells a mainstream story, but uses a technique that is not refined for storytelling in this way. Although I enjoyed the film a good bit, I would have had a much easier time recommending it if it were more 'crisply' visual -- if the images were clearer than they are.


Sunday, October 09, 2005

Musing Pictures: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

I think I enjoy the Wallace and Gromit claymation films because their humor is so easy to enjoy -- it tends to be clean-ish, with an occasional hint at something sardonic and different... perhaps it's the British origins to this particular humor which make it so appealing to me? But what I really, truly appreciate about Wallace and Gromit in this age of cheaply-produced "reality TV" is the clearly excruciating level of absolute detail that these films exhibit. I just got back from "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit", their first feature (Wallace and Gromit's first feature, that is -- Nick Park already has the likes of "Chicken Run" on his resume).

Again, the humor fit me very well -- it was generally fairly clean, always sharp, and always funny in a good-natured sort of way, a way that made me enjoy laughing. And again, the details struck me as ridiculously impressive.

In a documentary on Film Noir which I show to my students every year, one of the talking heads (whose name, admittedly, I ought to remember) says something about film which strikes me as both true and forgotten: If you are making a movie, you have to be in total control of everything which appears on screen, because if you're not controling it, you're not making a movie -- you're just taking pictures.

My first reaction to this line when I heard it was that of course it couldn't be absolutely true -- when I shoot my films, I can't afford to construct a set, so I use real places, real locations, and as such, necessarily, my choice of location is in leu of my ability to fully control an environment -- I pick a location, rather than creating one, and that's about as close as I can get to full control.

But that's just it -- it's still a manipulation of the narrative, or, rather, a manipulation (by eliminating all other possible locations) of the place in which the narrative unfolds, and in that sense, it's still more control than simply 'taking pictures'.

But then there are reality TV shows, where there's really very little directorial intent behind the actions of characters or their background. And films have been edging towards this trend as well ("The Blair Witch Project" was a fluke in its day, but there's a tendency now to shoot from the hip in movies -- especially in independent films, shot on video, because tape is cheap, and it's all about 'accidentally' getting the right shot... it's like entering a marksmanship competition with a howitzer, or an M-16: the target will get hit by something, but it doesn't really matter how much else will get hit as well.)

With claymation, though (and, in some ways, with most types of animation), there is an absolute necessity to pay full attention to the details, because they can not be accidental. Animations from the age of classical hollywood (think: "Snow White") tended to showcase a few details, and to use the background the way live-action films would use a painted backdrop. A bird flying through a tree, for example, was intentionally placed there, and as such, would not be "background" in the way that the forest is a background, 'behind' it...

In fact, the way the early Disney features were shot would allow to get rid of the quotes around the word 'behind' -- the camera would be set up on a device that would show several "layers" of the image, with foreground objects closest to the camera, and the backdrop farthest from it. The camera would shoot 'through' all of these layers, compressing them visually in to the one image which we'd see on the screen.

The difference with claymation is that although there is a "set" in which the action takes place, that "set" has to be constructed with the care and detail of everything that appears before it -- there is no "background" in claymation, the way one would see it in a classical Disney animation. Since claymation is authentically three-dimensional when it is shot, the sense of depth in the image is much clearer than it is in classical animation, which takes on a two-dimensional, image-within-a-frame look. A city street in claymation is a model of a city street, not a painting of one, and whereas paintings do not require detail, models, somehow, demand it.

I don't think I'd appreciate Wallace and Gromit nearly as much if the settings of their films were dulled -- if walls were just flat expanses of clay, and if books were nothing more than rectangular clay blocks.

The great thing about the detail in these films, though, is that none of it is there just to 'look pretty'. Something I recommend to anyone who sees a Wallace and Gromit film is READ EVERYTHING! Every word placed in to the background is placed with such intention and care that the background of the film is its own entertaining device, where all sorts of humor lurks, awaiting discovery. Somehow all of this is placed in to the background of the film with such skill and with such care that it does not detract from the narrative itself, nor does it attempt to upstage the narrative like a bluebird flapping its way through an early Disney feature, stepping in to the foreground for its moment in front of the lens. No, the background here stays background, and beckons the viewer to really dive in to the film's surface, among its textures, to really experience the full richness of the humor involved.

Perhaps my favorite example of this, not from this most recent film of theirs, but from an earlier Wallace and Gromit claymation (perhaps "The Wrong Trousers?" but I don't remember):

Poor Gromit the dog has been placed in prison. We get a shot of him laying on his prison bunk morosely reading a book. To see a dog in prison, reading a book, is kind of funny in itself, but if you really look closely (at a detail that is not meant to stand out), the book he is reading is (none other than) "Crime and Punishment"! And if you read the smaller print (if you go through all that effort, you're already inside the frame itself, inside that prison cell, because you can't read the small print otherwise), you see it's by none other than that great canine, "Fido Dogstoyevsky"

It's not a bluebird flapping its wings for the audience -- it's a little, tiny detail underneath another little tiny detail in a small part of a small shot in a small scene in a short film. It could have just been any old book, and no one would have noticed, but someone on that animating team went through the trouble to create those letters on the cover of that book, and that's where making movies really happens.


Sunday, October 02, 2005

Musing Pictures: Serenity

Although I never had a chance to pay the short-lived TV show, "Firefly" any attention, I decided last night to give the film that is based on it a try.

"Serenity" struck me as being very refreshingly "retro" -- this, of course, is an observation that fans of the show have already made a long time ago. But my interest in "Serenity" really had nothing to do with the show -- I wanted to see if it would hold up on its own, As A Film.

Part of the reason I wanted to see if it would hold as a film on its own was that from the beginning, it ran the risk that many "Star Trek" films have faced: It risked looking and feeling like nothing more than simply a longer, bigger-budget TV show episode on a really big screen. There were times when I felt that it did just that -- in the way that the camera moved through the CGI space, shifting and zipping this way and that... it was a way of moving that is native to the small screen, but which, to my surprise, fit the bigger screen rather well.

the type of acting that the lead characters displayed was also very small-screen-ish, almost painfully begging to be televised, at times (and in fact, a significant portion of the film involves the characters desperately trying to make an interstellar TV broadcast, despite the interferance of an evil "alliance"... does it sound like the filmmaker had a beef with the networks or what? They did cancel his show, after all...) But the acting, probably because it is smaller, meeker, less grandiose, actually makes the characters all the more believable -- rather than overplaying their characters, the actors somehow managed to underplay them, and in that way, to bring them to life in ways that "movie stars" generally have a hard time doing.

So, good ol' Joss Whedon made a movie about broadcasting a secret message (cancelled TV show) across space (the US/world) despite the greatest efforts of the Alliance (the Network) to kill (cancel) the broadcasters (Joss and his buddies).

I think that's kind of fun, actually. I have a lot of respect for that. It's Joss saying "you all suck!" in a really constructive, dream-achieving sort of way. Good for him.

The one shadow cast on the whole thing, for me, began as nothing more than an unflattering portrayal of the film's only Jewish character -- "Mr. Universe".

So, he's high on himself, is proud of having married a femme-bot, and is a techno-wizard. Fine. I know plenty of Jews with unflattering characteristics. It makes me a little queasy to see it outright on the big screen, because things tend to get inflated and warped when they are presented in that way, but... it got much, much worse very quickly.

I'll be spoiling just a bit of the plot, but if you've read the Christian Bible, you'll know exactly where this is going:

So, the crew of the "Serenity" fly towards Mr. Universe's planet, where they hope to broadcast their secret message to the world. Mr. Universe says "come on in! the coast is clear" (I'm paraphrasing). Everything looks hunky-dory, until...

cut to inside Mr. Universe's personal techno-palace. He has lots and lots of Alliance troops standing around him, so it's clear he was forced to betray his friends. Fine. I'll buy that. I was going along with the plot just fine, feeling like "ah, that was a great little twist", when Mr. Universe turns to The Operative who leads the Alliance troops and says something like "Ok, now give me my thirty pieces of silver and-" at which point he is unceremoniously killed.

Thirty pieces of silver? Another Jew playing Judas? If his motives were self-protection, which is what I thought at first (what with so many guards standing around him), I'd have understood that, but by dropping this one little line, the entire scenario turns in to yet another version of the antisemitic "Jews vs Savior" (captain Mal, in this case) motif. Sure, the original narrative has Judas betraying Jesus for some cold, hard cash, but it's not originally a Jew vs. Christian story -- it's Jew vs. Jew. It's when Judas is taken out of the historical context of a predominantly Jewish society that he becomes an antisemite's tool. What does an antisemite care if a Jew betrays another Jew? The antisemite cares a lot if a Jew betrays someone else -- a hero, a savior, a Christ-figure (but not a Jewish one, like Jesus, of course).

That moment in the film made my blood run very cold. I hope it was an oversight made by people who have never really learned to be sensitive about this issue. If it was not, I am surprised that a greater outcry has not already begun.


Sunday, September 25, 2005

Musing Pictures: Corpse Bride

Tim Burton. I don't know how to digest him quite yet.

The film itself is a lot of fun, in its own, macabre sort of way. The humor hits home with regularity, and the atmosphere, expertly woven by Burton and his team of... of whatever they are, is marvellously thrilling. Being countable months away from a wedding of my own added its own levels of creepiness to everything, of course.

But I really don't know how to digest Burton. There are aspects of this film which strike me as delightfully fresh -- provocatively edgy, and there are other aspects of this film which strike me as almost passive in their regularity... Perhaps it's the claymation, perhaps it's something else... somehow, all of the emotions in the film felt muted, despite the greatest range of human experience, from love to fear to mourning to death that appears in the film to varying degrees.

What I haven't been able to figure out is whether this muting of these emotional extremes is a blessing or a curse on the film itself.

On one hand, there might be a possibility that were these emotions somehow more emphatically evident, the film would have been too creepy, to hard to handle. It would have become too much of a zombie film with a heart.

On the other hand, perhaps had they been stronger, the film's story would have come across more powerfully than it did.

And that's just it, isn't it? For an edgy movie to be palletable, it has to be tame, which makes it harder for it to be edgy. That whole balance is where so many films go wrong, and it's one of a filmmaker's most dramatic challenges. I think Burton gets it. I enjoyed "Corpse Bride"... but... somehow, I'm still left wondering...


Friday, June 03, 2005

Musing Pictures: Jaws

When Chief Brody first sees the killer shark in Jaws, he turns in fear to captain Quint and says, I think were gonna need a bigger boat. In the summer of 1975, it wasnt a bigger boat that the folks at Paramount needed, but bigger theaters Spielbergs daring project was on its way to the history books as it packed movie houses across the country. This summer, the film celebrates its thirty years of scaring beachgoers and thrilling audiences across the globe.
Although the film predates me by several years, I did manage to catch it in its original big-screen glory at the Coolidge Corner Theater several years ago. It was at this screening, where the shark was life-sized, and the reluctant heroes even larger, that I began to realize the full power and mystique of Jaws. From the first two, ominous notes of John Williams haunting (and surprisingly complex) score, the crowd in the packed theater broke in to enthusiastic applause and they were not all fans. Even those in the audience who had never seen the film knew to recognize the music, which has been quoted and parodied in everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Shark Tale. From that moment, the atmosphere in the theater was downright electric. Fans of the film sat at the edge of their seats, eagerly getting swept up in the swashbuckling adventure flickering before them, while folks seeing the film for the first time sat back, slouched low, occasionally peeking through splayed fingers, searching the on-screen waters for the hidden, toothy monster.
I was there expecting to see the same film I knew and loved from TV, and from that well-worn VHS from the library. I was amazed to discover that despite the fun I had watching Jaws at home, the film ebbed and flowed with a shocking force and a terrible beauty in that theater in ways that I had never experienced. Spielberg shoots from the minds of his characters, and on the big screen, the full force of his cinematic storytelling comes through most clearly, where every angle of every shot, designed meticulously to reflect and project a mood or a sensation, dominates the field of vision.
I left the theater that evening realizing that I had been very dramatically moved by the film not to tears, but on a longer emotional journey, through suspense, fear and excitement, to a final, relieved joy, and to that mysterious feeling I occasionally get when I am told a story that is bigger than myself. I got that feeling when I looked around, and saw that it was shared by all of the theatergoers around me.
But what makes Jaws such a powerful film? Most of its younger fans never saw it in a theater, where its full, almost visceral force is unavoidable, but on TV, often chopped up by commercials.
When it comes down to it, I think it's all about the characters: A police chief who hates the water but lives on an island ("It's only an island if you look at it from the water"), a trust fund kid with cool toys who wants to swim (but not sleep) with the fishes, and an adventurer with dark tales and a temper. They're each a part of us in a way, representative of something we all share. The film is about them much more than it is about a shark. It's a lesson to modern filmmakers, with their new, special effects gadgets and toys: Tell a good story, and when the gadgets get out-dated, the story will last.

FYI: This weekend, the most significant of the films many 30th anniversary events begins on Marthas Vinyard, off Cape Cod, MA, where much of the film was shot. The island is expecting thousands of visitors, including younger fans who only caught the shark on television or home video, to gather at what will become an annual celebration of everything Jaws.