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.