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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Musing Pictures: Quantum of Solace

A review of this film by Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sun calls attention to the frantic pace of the editing in this latest James Bond installment. I'd like to expand on Sragow's complaint, and perhaps illustrate what the editing achieves (and what it doesn't).

In an opening chase scene that borrows as much from "Ben Hur" as from every other Bond flick, James (again, Daniel Craig, who does a good job of it) is being chased by suave hoodlums in nice, black cars. Although it's very easy to understand what's going on, we aren't really presented with sequential details. We get everything in very brief flashes. Some spike jams in to Bond's car. There's a truck up ahead! There's a roadblock! they're shooting! But the sequence doesn't really come across as a sequence. The usual vocabulary of the road chase gets truncated and interrupted by very quick, hard-to-follow shots. While watching the scene, I found myself wishing that certain shots had held for a bit longer, just so I could get my bearings, get a sense of who's where, what's the danger, where's the way out, etc.

There is a lot of good reason to pace chase sequences quickly, of course. Tight, speedy editing can really punch-up a good scene, can give it a dynamic edge. But a good scene, after all, has to follow an intelligible sequence of events, and the footage has to illustrate that sequence, and guide us through it, so that at every point we know everything we need to know to follow the action (without knowing too much, of course). Although there may have been an intelligible sequence of events in this film's first chase scene, the editorial choices undercut the flow of that sequentiality, and end up conveying "chase" without really outlining it or walking us through it.

For an excellent chase scene, take a look at another Bond film, "Goldeneye," When that James Bond steals a tank to get away from his captors. That scene, which begins with a wonderful shot of the tank barelling through a large brick wall, is very classically structured. If there is a twist, we are presented with it moments before it enters the narrative. If there is an obstacle, we are shown it with enough time to understand and sense Bond's jeopardy. Relative to the new film's first chase scene, the "Goldeneye" scene takes its time, and in a way, comes across as more suspenseful.

There is a keyword here: Jeopardy. If there is not enough time for, or not enough information for us to register a character's jeopardy, the scene won't be as suspenseful. As a result of the editing, "Quantum of Solace" falls in to this trap numerous times. It's not that Bond isn't in danger -- on the contrary, Daniel Craig's Bond is one of the most vulnerable in the francheis. But we just aren't given enough time to see and to process the danger before Bond is forced to react to it.

On the whole, I am a little surprised at this particular quirk of the film (which is otherwise a fine and often interesting film). The director, Marc Forster, has quite a few subtler, quieter, slower films under his belt (such as "The Kite Runner" and "Stranger than Fiction"). Even the editors should have known better. Matt Chesse (who also worked with Forster on several quieter films) and Richard Pearson (who edited for the outstanding Paul Greengrass on very well-paced films such as "United 93" and "The Bourne Supremacy") seem like the sort of editing duo any production would envy. Did their opposite experiences (one of quiet contemplation, one of intense action and drama) cancel each other out in some way? I'm not sure. Pearson, in particular, surprises me here.

They call this "MTV-style" editing, but I feel that it has gone farther than that. Music videos do not need to convey narrative in the way that movies do. Certainly, film editing has gotten quite choppy over the past few decades, but I wonder what has brought it to this point.

In order for film editing to really remain an effective and critical part of the cinematic process, editors have to bring their attention back to the storytelling, and to the idea that a sequence is not just a series of visceral moments, but a careful construction of elements to create and guide an audience's clear and lucid understanding of a chain of events.

-AzS

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Musing Pictures: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Comics, the Internet, and the New Lateral Narrative

I came out of the movie theater after seeing "The Incredible Hulk" with one dominant thought: the very idea of a narrative thread is changing in Hollywood.

The film, based on a Marvel Comics narrative, tells the story of Bruce Banner, a scientist with a mysterious self-induced problem -- he turns in to a gigantic, enraged green monster if his heart rate goes up too high. The story is told in the usual fashion, in three structured segments, with an opening that introduces the characters, their dilemmas, a long central unit comprised primarily of cat-and-mouse (or carrot-and-stick) scenes, and an action-packed resolution in which characters mature, face their inner demons, and find the willpower to smash the true enemy, which reveals itself at long last.

This is all very standard, very entertaining stuff. Hollywood has been at this task for a century, building story-after-story on this structure.

But "The Incredible Hulk" doesn't begin with Hollywood. It begins elsewhere, in a very different industry, with a very different medium.

Marvel Comics introduced The Hulk to its readership in the 1960s, along with numerous other characters that have become icons of the industry. Each character had a story, an emergence in to the "Marvel Universe". In 1963, The Hulk joined other characters (Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, Wasp) in a superhero team known as "The Avengers". This may seem trivial at first, but it exemplifies something revolutionary -- "The Avengers" is a convergence of several entirely different narratives. Characters which had been conceived independently of one another, and which were written in to worlds of their own, were brought to share the same page with one another. Instead of the "Avengers" story having a linear structure, with one beginning leading through a series of connected plot points to one end, the story has numerous beginnings -- the beginnings of each character's story -- which parallel one another, and which only rarely intersect. The "Avengers" narrative is actually multiple narratives woven together.

This is not like the simpler convergence one might see in such films as that 1987 novelty piece, "The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones". In that example, characters from one narrative leave their world (via a time machine) and enter in to the world of the other narrative. There is no implied continuity between one and the other, except for the rough, self-contradictory link between distant time periods. It is also not like those Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in which characters from the Enterprise interact with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty. There, science fiction allows Captain Picard, Data and the others to create imagined versions of those characters -- they meet recreations, not the characters themselves. Holmes in Star Trek is a reflection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character, but he is not a continued version of Holmes himself.

If anything, it is more akin to the way that three Star Trek shows are presented as contemporaries of one another -- The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all take place at around the same timeframe, within the same narrative universe. Of course, this is television -- the rules are different.

For some reason, the sort of intermingling of narratives seen in the world of comics has not made much of an appearance in films. Even in films based on comic books, an individual character still drives the franchise. There is a reason for this.

In the past, if a Hollywood studio wanted to make a Superman film, they'd buy the rights to Superman from DC comics, and they'd make films with and about Superman. If they wanted to make a Batman film, they'd buy those rights, and make a film with and about Batman. Often, the films would be produced by different companies, with entirely different production teams creating entirely different worlds. The world of Richard Donner's "Superman" in 1978 could not be more different than Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman", even though both are Warner Brothers pictures.

"The Incredible Hulk" marks the beginning of a very different approach to these kinds of stories. An astute observer might note, early in the film, that the company that sponsors Dr. Banner's research is Stark Industries. The name of the company, and its logo, appear briefly in the film. Amazingly, the logo is identical in design and format to the logo of Stark Industries as it appears in last month's "Iron Man" (another excellent comic-based film).

The convergence of one small production design element might not seem like much, but it is significant. In a different context, this would never have happened. The typical Hollywood production stands on its own. Whoever works on "Iron Man" works on "Iron Man", and whoever works on "Hulk" works on "Hulk", and even if the same production designer goes from one film to the other, the artwork for each is expected to be unique. Each film is designed by its own team, is made to have its own individual 'look' and 'feel'. Each production team is hoping to create its own franchise, its own recognizable brand image.

"The Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man" were marketed this way -- they were presented to us as two entirely un-related films, with entirely un-related stories. Except for comic book afficionados, who among us would have noted that both films are being released by the same production company, or that they share key personnel (such as producers Kevin Feige and Avi Arad)? But they are, in fact, part of an intertwining series of films that the production company, Marvel Enterprises (yes, the same Marvel that first published these stories half a century ago) is planning to roll out over the next half-decade. Plans are in the works for films about Ant-Man, Thor, and Captain America, and in 2011, Marvel will release a unifying work, "The Avengers", which unites all of these characters.

It is only natural that this sort of cinematic web-weaving is being born of the comics. It is also not surprising that the first company to successfully introduce this multi-tiered super-franchise to Hollywood is Marvel, which only recently began to undertake the process of producing its own films. But why now? Superheroes have been featured in movies and television for many years. Aside from the limitations of rights-management and the risks involved in planning such an extensive series of films, why hasn't Hollywood attempted to create a franchise around a world (rather than around a character or team)?

I think that this has more to do with the audience than with the business of filmmaking. When these stories were introduced in the '60s, they were presented on the printed page. Comic books could be flipped through, referenced. There was a certain level of interactiveness associated with buying, reading and trading comic books that allowed people to follow the stories they liked, to pass on the narrative threads (or characters, or whatever) that they weren't interested in, and still get a sense of the larger picture. There was a universe, and you could pick who you were going to follow through that universe. Movies typically don't allow that kind of flexibility. A movie unravels itself one frame at a time. It's orderly and linear. But media is changing dramatically these days. I think that we're looking at things differently in part because of the way that we look at information. These days, everything seems to be hyperlinked. If you read a wikipedia article, and come across an unfamiliar term, chances are, you can click on the term, and be instantly presented with a new article about it. We can be studying about Ancient Rome, and link to an article on the Acropolis, which sends us to a page on ancient architecture, which sends us to a page on US government buildings, which links to a page on the cold war, which links to an article on ICBMs, which links to a page on Nuclear Physics, and then to Marie Curie, and from there to... Instead of taking in information linearly, in a fairly straight line from question to answer, we are offered (and increasingly take) the opportunity to follow divergent and convergent paths to the answers we seek. It does not disturb the natural flow of our thoughts to be on a news website, and seconds later, to find ourselves on YouTube, or browsing the results of a Google search. We are much more used to the idea that entirely separate, entirely different things can be connected in some way -- via this aptly named World Wide Web -- and as such, a webbed super-narrative is much more palatable.

At the end of "The Incredible Hulk", Robert Downey Jr. makes an appearance in the character of Tony Stark (of the fictional "Stark Industries" which figures lightly in this film, and which figures heavily in "Iron Man"). His appearance in character cements the interconnectedness of the two films, but has the brevity of a simple hyperlink. Each film stands on its own. Each tells a full, well-wrought story. But there are links, and the links promise to lead to more links, as new films emerge about this corner of the Marvel universe.

"The Avengers" promises to unite these disparate stories, but if the next decade of Marvel films follows the pattern of the comics, we may see the day when "The Avengers III" comes out months ahead of "Iron Man V", with the same actor playing the same character in both films, with complementary production design, and with the clear sense that each film takes us on its own narrative journey, but that they are all journeys within the same sphere.

I am very curious to see this develop, and to see how Hollywood reacts. Will there be attempts to create super-franchises outside of the pre-existing comic book worlds? Will this remain the realm of science fiction, or might it seep in to other genres as well? Since this kind of strategy is enormous in scale, it will probably be at least a decade before we know for sure whether these new kinds of narratives take root in Hollywood. In the meantime, it'll sure be interesting to see how Marvel paves the way.

-AzS

Monday, May 26, 2008

Musing Pictures: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Spielberg meets Plato in Outer Space (or South America) -- Light, Knowledge, and the Crystal Skull

(Here Theyr Bee Spoylers)

I must admit here that I entered in to the theater today with the intention of thoroughly enjoying a piece of escapist cinema, trusting that the masterful team behind it would carry me far and away from the times and places I currently inhabit. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was very effective in that regard, but the back of my mind could not help but notice hints of a fascinating network of ideas that lurks beneath, behind and around the film's narrative.

We begin, like the other Jones films, with the famous Paramount mountain logo transforming in to the image of its twin. Here, it's a mound of dirt, from which emerges a ground hog or prairie dog (my weakness in zoological identification becomes apparent here). The image of a mountain becomes the image (and the diagetic fact) of a mole hill. It is a trick of perspective, reminding us that what we see has a lot to do with where we're looking from.

It is fitting that a film about an archaeologist explores ancient ideas. In this case, the first shot initiates a film-long and surprisingly intellectual examination of the Allegory of the Cave, a narrative devised by Plato in "The Republic", written about 2370 years ago.

Plato's story, told here on one foot, is about a group of prisoners chained to a wall in a cave. Their heads are forced in to one position, such that all they can see are the shadows cast on the cave's back wall. All the knowledge that these prisoners have is derived from the shadows they see on the wall. Though they do not know it, the actual truth is behind them, casting the shadows. According to Plato, if one of the prisoners were to escape, he'd be very disoriented at first, blinded by the light of the sun, by the sheer force of truth. After a while, this prisoner would acclimate to the bright light, and would return to the cave to free his fellows. Unfortunately, these poor souls would think their liberator completely out of his mind, unable to understand all of his stories of color, light, sound, and of the length, breadth and depth of the world.

Much like in Plato's allegory, Spielberg's films form strong bonds between light and knowledge. In Spielberg's narratives, a bright light often emanates from a source of knowledge (the ark in the first Indiana Jones film, the mothership in "Close Encounters"). Spielberg will often fire harsh beams of blue-white light directly in to the camera, too, when important information is conveyed to characters or to the audience (searchlights in "Schindler's List", flashlights in "Jurassic Park"). Whereas many of Spielberg's films explore this idea deep beneath their surface, the Indiana Jones films, and particularly this fourth film in the series, bring light and knowledge together much more overtly.

First, the connection between light and knowledge is established. As the film's first act reaches its climactic chase sequence, Indiana Jones, under duress, leads a group of communist spies to a box in a warehouse that contains the mysterious remains of a corpse. The remains have an odd effect on metals around them, almost like a magnetic force. As the communists lift the box and carry it away, large, hanging lights in the ceiling swing gently towards it (and, of course, towards the camera). Beams of light constantly turn towards the viewer as the moment of illumination, in which the contents of the box are revealed, approaches. This revelation, of course, becomes

There are many more moments like this. Later in the film, Jones and his adventuring partner have just discovered the long-lost tomb of seven conquistadors. The archaeologist excitedly works to cut through a conquistador's burial wrappings, and demands of his young partner, "give me some light". The light of an electric lantern glares brightly in to the lens in the next shot, as the face of the conquistador is revealed. This is a significant moment in the narrative, in that it lends credence to the legends that fuel the plot -- an element of the legend proves true, and as such, the rest of the legend has more credibility.

We find out later that the crystal skull, the object that all of the characters pursue, is itself somewhat of a light source, shimmering faintly from within. We also discover that it is considered a source of tremendous knowledge, an elongated skull with room for an over-sized brain.

As the film unfolds, we are presented with more and more images of light, eyes (such as a waterfall that emerges from a cliff shaped like a face, with cataracts flowing from its eyes... through which the adventurers must travel to find the lost city that they seek), and with the quest for knowledge (Jones and the boy who turns out to be his son argue about the value of an education, while Jones himself seems to have mixed feelings about the best ways to educate, deeply respecting an old professor who put him to sleep, while also suggesting to his students that they get out of the library for a while.)

These ideas merge overtly when the crystal skull is returned to its owner, some sort of otherworldly being. When Indiana Jones and his band get close to the skull's final destination, they are in the bowels of a large pyramid of sorts, a temple with descriptive paintings on the walls. Jones provides us with a brief interpretation that presents us with a new story, that of alien creatures with large heads descending to Earth and teaching this region's people new skills, ways to help their civilization establish itself and grow. At one point, the crystal skull is held up in front of a large painting of one of these visitors, and the skull's shadow falls plainly and evenly over the head of the figure in the painting. It is, in a way, Plato's allegory all over again -- a moment of revelation in which the projected shadow is that from which we learn.

Here, Spielberg begins his commentary on Plato's tale, turning the tables a bit on an ancient idea.

The skull turns out to belong to one of several crystalline skeletons of ancient creatures from Elsewhere. When the skull is returned, the creatures come alive. Irina, the film's super-villainous KGB agent, demands of these creatures to teach her everything. At this point, it seems as though she may get her wish. Though the building around her seems to undergo a cataclysmic transformation, she is transfixed by the crystal creatures, whose eyes link with hers by a shaft of wispy light. At first, she seems awed, but eventually, the knowledge overwhelms her, and though she says "I can see!", the light is blinding, and destroys her.

As Jones and the others escape, they run through a room full of ancient artifacts from all over the world. It is very similar to the warehouse in which the film begins, only here, the objects are not in crates and boxes -- they are open to the world, exposed to light.

Spielberg, as a filmmaker, is re-organizing Plato's cave, re-structuring the way knowledge is understood.

Light, in film, serves two technical purposes. First, it illuminates objects in a scene, so that they provide film or optical chips with enough material to create an image. Second, it creates the shaded and shaped shadows that form a projected image on a screen. The creation of a film is a marriage of both processes. A filmmaker both illuminates objects directly, and creates shadows on a screen for us to see -- shadows that look very much like the objects themselves. Amazingly, we are now living in a world where the shadows may contain more information than the beam of light that causes them. If we were to stand by the screen and look in to the projector's lens, we'd see bright streams of light, but there would be no story, no narrative, no message, no meaning. Ultimately, we still have to look away from the light to see that which it illuminates, regardless of which side of the camera, or which side of the cave's entrance we're on. Irina looks straight in to the light for knowledge, and is blinded by it. Jones looks at that which the knowledge created -- the monuments and artifacts of civilization, and is able to learn much more.

There is a lot more that can be said on this subject (bringing in the Communism/Capitalism aspects of the story, the insanity induced in Oxley by gazing in to the skull, the particularly striking view of the nuclear explosion early in the film, the idea of Jones being 'kept in the dark' about his participation in the unearthing of alien remains, Mutt Williams' discovery that he is Jones' son, etc. etc. etc.) but I am happy to give my readers an opportunity to explore the topic further in comments or critiques on this blog. I welcome your responses!

-AzS

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Musing Pictures: Speed Racer

I do not regret seeing "Speed Racer," even though it is indeed just as bad as the worst reviews claim it is. Yet again, the Wachowski brothers (of "The Matrix" fame) have presented us with a striking vision of cinema's potential without spending more than a moment's thought on narrative. Structurally, the story of Speed, second son of Ma and Pops Racer, is quite classical. Boy wants to be a racecar hero, boy finds out that the world 'aint what he thinks it is, boy defies conventions and changes the world. And that third act, in which Speed Racer competes in a Grand Prix with no motive other than to simply win the race, is straightforward and recognizable enough to be enjoyed... if you haven't walked out of the theater by that point. Unfortunately, all structural methodology seems to fall apart at that macro level. The Wachowski Brothers introduce several technical elements, including multi-image wipes (in which the face of a character wipes across the screen the way a straight line might have done in "Star Wars"), multi-layered images (with characters speaking in close-up in the foreground, and wheeling, rolling shots of the action whirl behind them), fancy computer-generated 'camera moves' around and over and under the racing and exploding cars, and a color palette that is much louder and more vibrant than any digital/live-action film in recent memory. Unfortunately, few of these effects serve any narrative end, and as such, they become obviously and painfully, as Macbeth puts it, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Macbeth, Scene V)
Early in the film, the Wachowskis use an effect that, interestingly, does carry with it some narrative significance. In a race early in Speed's career, he approaches a record set eight years prior by his lost brother, Rex. To illustrate how close Speed is to breaking his brother's record, the Wachowskis don't rely on timers, counters, clocks, watches, or even on the ramblings of various race announcers. Instead, they show Rex's car, a ghostly shimmer on the race track, at times behind and at times ahead of Speed's white "Mach 5". This blending of time, an elision of eight years between the two races, a simultaneous depiction of both races on the same screen, within the same image, powerfully illustrates an important dramatic element of Speed's personality and motivation, and underscores one of the film's underlying tensions -- the threat and promise that Speed is almost exactly like his brother. I wish the Wachowskis would blend their technique and narrative like that more often. Alas, much of the flash in this film is wasted -- cars zoom around so fast, and with so little attention paid to character (even to the character of the cars themselves!) that there's very little left for a viewer to grab a hold of. The pace is so fast and so disorienting that its effect is to numb rather than engross. By contrast, the narrative scenes, in which characters talk, chatter, discuss, mourn, and celebrate, seem excruciatingly slow. The result is far from a smooth cruise through Speed Racer's world, but rather a lurching, binary slog, like a first-time driver behind the wheel of a stick-shift.


There is a beautiful metaphorical moment late in the film that illustrates both the Wachowski's ambition and their failure. In the third act, in Speed Racer's final race, the cars follow a path that takes them through a tunnel. As Speed enters the tunnel, the camera swings around to catch him in profile. Behind him, on the wall of the tunnel, is a long strip of images -- rectangles with the picture of a galloping zebra within them. As the camera pulls beside Speed, we can see those rectangles only one at a time, through the windshield of Speed's car. As those images flicker by, we see that, in fact, each zebra is slightly different, each one fraction of a moment ahead of the last in a suspended sort of gallop. The pictures flash by, and of course, we see them as a galloping zebra.

This is a visual quote of one of the origins of motion pictures, when Edweard Muybridge, to settle a bet, set up cameras along a racetrack and snapped a series of photographs of a galloping horse. Though Muybridge did not make a movie, the technology and concept of stringing a series of photographs together to illustrate movement began with him. In this image, the Wachowski's are acknowledging and perhaps boasting about their place in this technological history. They have taken Muybridge's horse and, effectively, they've put racing stripes on it. They've turned it in to a zebra. The missing element here, though, is the element of reality. Whereas Muybridge sought to find ways to see reality in a different way, the effects and techniques that the Wachowskis employ in "Speed Racer" merely offer a new depiction of fantasy -- they're little more than animation. Their "bullet-time" effect, invented for "The Matrix", is more comparable to Muybridge's galloping horse. Both techniques employ a string of still cameras to capture details of motion and perspective that the human eye is incapable of. The animation in "Speed Racer" is presented with a certain lack of conviction, as if the animators were insecure about whether any of their work would come across well. Animation does not need to represent the real world as we see it, but it is always presented with the challenge of depicting the real world as we feel it -- even if it is a world of the future, of the past, of animals, or even of fantasy. With a few individual scenes as exceptions, the Wachowskis have always struggled with this element of their special brand of creativity. There is technical wizardry at work, but behind it, there isn't even a clever illusionist.

"Speed Racer", like many of the big special effects films of the past few years, is a great example of why special effects must remain subsumed to narrative. It is an even more powerful example because of the creativity the Wachowskis bring to their special effects vision, which is not enough to replace good narrative, characters and good integration of the elements of cinema.


-AzS